Bring it

Life is full of mind-boggling mysteries to ponder over. What is the Krabby Patty secret formula? Is Michele Bachmann’s IQ actually lower than Sarah Palin’s? How did Cesena striker Emanuele Giaccherini contrive to miss this gilt-edged opportunity last weekend? How do you spell the name of the current (as at time of writing) Libyan leader’s name? And why do many Americans make no distinction between the verbs ‘to bring’ and ‘to take’?

Now, far be it from us to jump on that tired old Americanism-bashing bandwagon. We at Spanish Cow believe that English is an evolving language. We don’t mourn the Stateside assassination of the letter ‘u’ in ‘colour’ and ‘honour’. Our eyeballs tend to raise skywards upon hearing ubiquitous whines in the British and American press complaining of the damage that text-speak abbreviations are doing to our beloved language (when recent studies suggest the opposite to be true). And as Spanish Cow’s country of origin is Scotland, where ‘I’ve went’ and ‘I’ve did’ are not unheard-of in daily conversation, blaming everything on those darn uneducated Yanks probably isn’t going to wash.

The bring/take thing is a fascinating phenomenon, though. To a speaker of British English, the difference is as clear as that which distinguishes ‘to come’ and ‘to go’. While, as touched on above, Britons have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies, mixing up these two staple verbs is not one of them.

But in the USA, and certainly in Minnesota in particular, that distinction appears to have been lost. Spanish Cow often hears bring in situations where take makes more grammatical sense: “I have to bring Susie’s shoes to school because she forgot them” (when speaker is standing beside you in the street and definitely not anywhere near Susie’s school) or “My husband surprised me and brought me to Chicago for our wedding anniversary” (when speaker currently lives in Minnesota and was living in Minnesota during the time she was whisked away for a bit of hanky-panky).

While we at first thought we were going a bit doolally upon hearing the above examples, we were, after much head-scratching, heartened to discover that the incorrect use of bring is recognized – and renounced quite vigorously – by American grammarians, who see it as yet another sign of a faltering education system.

So, in a nutshell, what is the difference between bring and take? Mignon Fogarty, star of the excellent US-based Grammar Girl podcast, has a nice, straightforward explanation: “Whether you use bring or take depends on your point of reference for the action. The tip is that you ask people to bring things to the place you are, and you take things to the place you are going. As one listener put it, you bring things here and take things there. For example, I would ask Aardvark to bring Squiggly to my party next week, and then Aardvark would call Squiggly and ask, ‘May I take you to Grammar Girl’s party?’”

Another sensibly phrased version of the rule can be found within the pages of the Chicago Tribune stylebook: “Bring denotes movement toward the speaker or writer; take does not.”

Mainstream American television is not immune to this mistake. It’s a daily occurrence on ESPN’s SportsCenter, although looking to sport presenters – who regularly employ the word ‘winningest’ – for grammatical guidance is akin to calling Charlie Sheen publicity-shy. Dora the Explorer peppers her pre-school pronouncements with erroneous brings and takes, but the same caveat applies.

Some better examples, then. In the latest episode of Bob’s Burgers, Fox’s amusing new animated series, the embattled Bob tells one of his irreverent offspring to “Go collect the trash and bring it to the dumpster,” despite the fact he is in the kitchen when he gives the order. And in NBC’s Lost rip-off, The Event, Sophia (played by ER’s Laura Innes) talks about ‘bringing home’ the aliens, when she is clearly on Earth and referring to, we are led to believe, another planet, or a different dimension.

Could this be another example of linguistic follow-my-leader (see December’s post on ‘Qatar’)? I.e. if something is repeated enough on American television, viewers will eventually copy it and insert it into their day-to-day speech, not realizing that that same something could actually be wrong? Or could it be a hangover from the influence exerted on American English by other colonial languages such as French, Dutch, German or Spanish? Or plain old linguistic laziness?

Because the problem here is that, unlike other manglings of English, this one has the potential to create real confusion. If your line manager says “Bring the stats to my office now”, that implies that he is actually in his office. “Take the stats to my office now”, however, suggests that he is not in his office but that you should deliver the statistics there anyway. If your boss does not understand this rule and e-mails you the former request from a conference in Rio de Janeiro, you could be hanging about for him in his office for a wee while. If he sends you the latter, and you mistakenly believe him to be absent, you should avoid discussing his receding hairline with your colleague as you both waltz into his dark lair.

At while at first glance the apparent confusion between two verbs may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, if we allow bring and take to fuse into one, an important distinction is lost to the language. And the mind-boggling mystery that future professors of English will ponder over is how we ever let it happen.

4 Responses

  1. This has annoyed me ever since I moved to Minnesota from North Carolina. I dare say North Carolina is not widely known for a high regard for grammar, but there are many (seemingly) easy distinctions that I thought were universally understood until I moved. I was very surprised this happened in Minnesota, where proper grammar and higher learning are seen with such regard. It’s not just bring and take, however. Many similar pairs are reduced to only one verb, such as borrow means both borrow and lend, and itch means both itch and scratch. I nearly fell onto the floor the first time I was asked to itch someone’s back. Explaining this difference is easy, but bring and take is a tough one. It seems to me less a lack of distinction, and more of a regional mindset. When I’ve tried to explain the distinction, people often reply from a futuristic, goal-oriented mindset. They believe they should use “bring” because they will be there when the “bringing” is complete. It boggles my mind!

    • Hi Jayysen. While I’m actually glad that this really gets your goat too, your annoyance has made me realise that I’ve perhaps been guilty of unfairly tarring all Americans with the same brush. A bad habit to fall into.
      I have heard borrow/lend, but not itch/scratch. Not yet, anyway. Although I am wondering about the circumstances of you being asked to scratch someone else’s back…it wasn’t at work, was it? 🙂 Anyway, keep up the good work explaining these important distinctions. SC.

  2. I too have found this misuse very distracting. When reading Nelson deMIlle’s Corey series of novels, he constantly reverses the sense of bring and take. I believe he is a New Yorker. What amazes me is that at the end of his book, he gives credit to his proof reader, who has signally failed him in not applying correct English grammar. Why am I so worked up? I give courses in English to French nationals and am constantly having to explain why a rule they had learned is being ignored.
    What an interesting site you have; I can see that I will be returning frequently in search of topics for my English workshop participants.
    PS At risk of starting a new debate, I am a Briton, not a Brit!

  3. Interesting, Misterfish. I’d have to agree that the proofreader was indeed guilty of a dereliction of duty, as this certainly isn’t a British-American distinction; American grammarians are as bemused by it as me and you.

    Thanks for the kind comments. On Brit/Briton, I get the impression many Americans aren’t even aware of the existence of the latter. I too am a Briton, although potentially only until 18th Sept. 2014… 🙂

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