Wednesday, February 1, 2012

You can't bring it with you (or maybe you can)

Like any enforcer of an institutional style, the New York Times’s Philip Corbett has to defend certain distinctions well into their obsolescence. One of his probably-lost causes came up in a December After Deadline blog post:
A Met official took the stage to say Ms. White had suffered a short fall and was brought to the hospital.*

Here’s what the stylebook says:

bring, take. Use bring to mean movement toward the speaker or writer; take means movement away from the speaker or writer (in fact, any movement that is not toward the speaker or writer). So the Canadian prime minister cannot be bringing a group of industrialists to a conference in Detroit, except in an article written from Detroit.
I grew up following this rule -- or, rather, not knowing there was any other way to use bring and take;  you bring something with you when you come, and take it when you go. And when I asked Boston Globe readers about their usage, in a 1998 column ($ except for subscribers), 73 percent said they did it my way.

But over the years I've gotten used to hearing bring where I would say take -- "I'll bring this to New York," for instance, spoken by a husband sitting next to me in Boston. And even when I was still suspicious of that bring, it was clear that bring and take often hovered on an imaginary threshold, with only the speaker knowing which point of view was assumed: "Shall we bring/take an umbrella?" (See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for a thorough and sympathetic analysis.)

I don't think I'm alone in my growing tolerance for that minority use of bring, because I keep seeing it in respectable publications. I haven't gone looking for examples, but the usage is still odd enough to my ear that I (sometimes) notice it; here are a few cites I've clipped in the past year or so.
This week, I tested three computer mice that laptop users will actually want to bring along with them. (Katherine Boehret, Wall Streeet Journal, January 2011)
Burch wraps up a slice of cake and two cupcakes for me to bring home to my daughter. (Daphne Merkin, NYT T Magazine, December 2011)
So Wayne and Judy took over their son’s care, bringing him [from Memphis] first to a premier brain-injury center in Atlanta  ... and then to a clinic in Destin, Fla. (Jeneen Interlandi, NYT Magazine, December 2011)
[If the world were going to end in December 2012] I’d love to bring my family to the Serengeti to see migrating herds of zebra and gazelles. (Scott Simon, WSJ, January 2012)
And here's one that uses both verbs alternately:
Bring This Checklist with You Next Time You’re Apartment Hunting
Just print it out and take it with you when you're at an apartment showing ... You may also want to bring your camera along so you can take a few photos.
(Adam Dachis,, January 2012)
[Edited to add this example, 2/2/2012:]
At some point, most adoptive families do bring their children back to China.  (Good Housekeeping magazine, January 2012)
I haven't seen an example yet in the New Yorker, but it sure looks as if certain NYT and WSJ editors think bring sounds normal in these contexts. I'm not there yet myself, but since I'm no longer a working editor, I don't plan to lose any sleep over the question.

* I'd make it "had suffered a short fall and was (had) been brought to the hospital," but Corbett didn't comment on the lack of parallelism.


Marc Leavitt said...

I take your point.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I will be sure to take this distinction up with my friends.

Sean said...

I live in Ireland (originally from the UK) and I was surprised by the number of times I heard bring and take used interchangeably. When I mentioned it to people they seemed totally unaware of any distinction. The phrase that first drew this to my attention was, "I'm going to bring the dog for a walk".

Pete, the dog, seemed blissfully unaware.

Dawn in NL said...

Like Sean, I noticed bring being used in Ireland in this way.

In the example given I would have questioned "suffered" and "short" fall so I would have written "Ms. White had fallen and had been taken to the hospital".

Ed Cormany said...

good thing the stage wasn't between the author and the spokesman, or he would have had to write "A Met official brought the stage to say Ms. White was taken to the hospital."

The Ridger, FCD said...

For me, the choice has more to do with what's being emphasized - source or goal. If I'm home and I say "I'll take this to the office" I'm probably going to bring it back home; "I'll bring it to the office" means I'm leaving it there. "I'll bring Anna some flowers" because I'm focusing on Anna, not me. And "they brought her to the hospital" implies that the story will continue there, while "they took her" means they'll stay at the Met...

The "I'll bring the dog on a walk" seems to be emphasizing the walk and the dog being company for me, rather than "take" which would be about the dog and his needs.

Clearly, that's not everyone's intuition, but I never did get the insistence that it had to be speaker-oriented.

Anonymous said...

* I'd make it "had suffered a short fall and was (had) been brought to the hospital," but Corbett didn't comment on the lack of parallelism.

Still not parallel: active/passive.

Ø said...

Joni Mitchell sings "There'll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow" in the song "Little Green". It was apparently written in 1967.

Anonymous said...

I agree with The Ridger. "Bring" and "take" bring different perspectives to the discussion. In one case, the speaker already has his or her mind in that anticipated situation. I love the subtle distinction that is available to us.

Anonymous said...

There does appear to be a natural distinction between the two words. No one would say, "Can you take me an umbrella?"(outside of Cockney theft rings, that is) or "Bring this away."

Anonymous said...

To the Ridger: I think "bring" gets used when "take" would be appropriate because "take" sounds like a command. People are more prone to say "Bring this with you," than "Take this with you" to avoid (unconsciously) a harsh tone. It could be less about grammar and more about politeness.

Bryan White said...

I think there's definitely room for flexibility here, as the meaning remains fairly clear in most cases. I imagine it would only become a problem in cases that would cause confusion (say, when the destination isn't clear. Speakers may find things being brought to them that should have been taken elsewhere), or when it grates on the ear or the sensibilities.

Bryan White said...

On the other hand, the Ridger makes a compelling case...especially with walking the dog ;D

Bryan White said...

On yet a third hand, I wonder if the distinction that the Ridger is making isn't more a matter of the preposition rather than the verb. For instance, couldn't it be:

"I'm taking the dog ON a walk."


"I'm taking the dog FOR a walk."


For the most part, though, I like and agree with the distinctions he makes. "Bring" suggests something incidentally accompanying you on a journey, while "take" suggests that the act of transporting the object is the main purpose of the journey.

With the flowers example there's a shift in the imagination. You say "I'll bring Anna some flowers" and the reader/listener pictures you arriving at her doorstep with the flowers. You say "I'll take Anna some flowers" and the reader/listener pictures you setting off on the task, your back to them as you rush off to the flower shop, having just remembered at the last minute, "That's right! I was going to bring Anna some flowers." ;D

John Cowan said...

I vaguely remember that in Hiberno-English bring and take are used in a different way, tracking the corresponding Irish verb(s). Unfortunately, the details escape me. I googled Stan Carey's blog Sentence First but to no avail.

Ø said...

John Cowan: This WiPe article says a little about that.

Unknown said...

I, too, more or less concur with Ridger. For me it's a question of point of view (source or goal). Take your point of view from the goal and use bring. Take the point of view of the source and use take. I do know people who can bring something somewhere and return, but I can't. For example, if I bring my child to school, I probably work there or study there. If I take my child to school, my child studies there.

Anonymous said...

For me "take" has a harder sound, a more negative connotation. "Take" in general is used impassively, but it can also carry a more assertive sense. You move it away from a source. Bring moves towards, implying a closeness. If a wife says, "Bring your son to school," there is a softer note, a feeling of companionableness: the idea of inward movement is transferred to the relationship between the actor and object. However, if she says, "Take your son to school," then this is a task, and the son is objectified. He must be moved between two points. The relationship between father and son (and mother) is not a part of the equation.

Gregory Lee said...

As I recall, Charles Fillmore's classic article "Deictic Categories in the Semantics of 'Come'" (Foundations of Language, Vol 2, No 3, 1966) includes some mention of 'bring/take', as well as 'come'. Of course, whether movement to or away from conversational participants is important, but Fillmore also made this point (sort of obvious in retrospect): people move around, so you need to take account of whether the motion is toward or away from where various people were, are, or will be at several significant times: previous to, at, or subsequent to the time of utterance or the time of some event or condition being reported.

Bill Rapaport said...

I grew up in NY City; as far as I know, we native New Yorkers do not distinguish between 'bring' and take'; I've never understood the difference, except intellectually (I've done research on deixis, so I understand the concept). So it's not that we New Yorkers (or is it just me?) *ignore* the difference; we're simply not attuned to it.

John Lawler said...

As Greg Lee points out, Charles Fillmore has written extensively and fascinatingly on the subject. Generally, take is a causative of go and bring is a causative ofcome; however, come and go are a little complex in English.
The best place to start is probably "May We Come In?", the first of Fillmore's classic Santa Cruz Deixis Lectures.