‘Borrow’ or ‘Lend’?

A children’s fantasy book series and a Shakespeare play remind us when and how to use “borrow” and “lend.”

Brenda Thomas, writing for
4-minute read
Episode #818
The Quick And Dirty

The person giving an item is doing the lending, and the person receiving it is doing the borrowing.

Sometimes people run afoul of standard grammar if they use the word “borrow” when they should have used “lend” or say “lend” when they should have said “borrow.” The confusion is understandable, since borrowing and lending are both actions related to one transaction, and in some dialects people do say things such as “Can you borrow me some money? or “Can I lend your pen?” But in Standard English, those two actions are different, and the words “borrow” and “lend” aren’t interchangeable because they involve different actions and mean different things. To understand the difference in meaning between “borrow” and “lend” and when to use which word, let’s look at two examples from literature.

'Borrow' examples from children’s fantasy

British author Mary Norton wrote a series of children’s fantasy books about tiny people who were called “borrowers.” In fact, the first book in her series was simply titled “The Borrowers.” Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, are the main characters in the book series. 

In the first book, they start out living in the space under the floorboards of a house where “giant” people live, whom Arrietty calls “human beans.” The Clocks have friends and relatives with different last names, such as the Harpsichords, Rain-Barrels, Overmantels, Boot-Racks, and Bell-Pulls, but all of them are called “borrowers” because everything they use to furnish their tiny homes in secret places is borrowed from the people who live in the house. 

A spool of thread serves as a table, a postage stamp adorns a wall like a picture, and matchboxes stacked on top of each other make for a chest of drawers for the “borrowers.” Sometimes when the “human beans” can’t find something, they blame it on the “borrowers.” 

In that book series, the “borrowers” don’t outright ask for the things they borrow because that would blow their cover. However, if they were to ask, it would be grammatically incorrect for them to say, “Would you borrow me a thimble, so I could use it as a pail?” Instead, if they want to be speaking Standard English, it would be correct for them to say, “Would you lend me a thimble?” or “May I borrow a thimble?” 

Or, to think of it another way, it would be correct for the “giants” in the house to say to the tiny people, “Do you want to borrow a thimble?” or “Would you like us to lend you a thimble?” But it would be incorrect for them to say, “Would you like to lend a thimble from us?” or “Would you like us to borrow a thimble to you?”

The person giving an item is doing the lending, and the person receiving it is doing the borrowing.

'Lend' example from Shakespeare

Marc Antony began his famous speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” by saying, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Now, we know when he said “lend me your ears,” he was not asking them to actually remove their ears and give them to him. Marc Antony wanted to borrow the audience’s attention, so he asked them to lend it to him. [Using “ears” to represent hearing is a figure of speech called “metonymy.”]

Imagine if he had said, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, borrow me your ears.” Not only would that have been grammatically incorrect, but it just doesn’t sound right. That’s because members of the audience were not borrowing their attention to him. He was the one doing the borrowing, and they were the ones doing the lending. That is why he asked them to lend him, not borrow him, their attention. 

Another way he could have properly asked for their attention would have been to say, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, may I borrow your attention?” and that also would have been grammatically correct.

Applying the examples of 'borrow' and 'lend'

Perhaps you’ve heard someone ask, “Will you borrow me your book?” or say, “I’ll borrow my book to you.” In those two instances, they should have used the word “lend” instead of “borrow.” The person giving the book is lending it, and the one receiving the book is borrowing it. 

If you want to borrow a book from someone else, it is correct to say, “May I borrow that book?” or “Will you lend that book to me?” 

And if you want to temporarily give your book to someone else, it’s correct to say, “Would you like to borrow my book?” or “Would you like me to lend my book to you?” 

If in doubt about when to use “borrow” or “lend,” consider the “borrowers” who take small items in Mary Norton’s book series or the opening line in Marc Antony’s speech in which he asks people to give him their ears, their attention. 

If you know which word should be used, and you hear people ask, “Will you borrow me your book?” or say, “I’ll borrow my book to you,” and you think they would appreciate some guidance (and that part is important), you can kindly reply, “Yes, I will lend my book to you,” or “Thank you for lending your book to me,” to help them absorb the grammatically correct usage. 

Remember: Givers are the lenders, and receivers (or takers) are the borrowers. A person either lends to or borrows from someone else.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Brenda Thomas, writing for Grammar Girl

Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.

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