People often ask how to use "bring" and "take." There's a simple rule, but it's also more complicated (and there are some fun dialect differences).
Today's topic is "bring" versus "take." I’ll give you an overview of the basics, and then I’ll tell you about some interesting variations in Ireland and the southern United States.
A lot of listeners have asked me to talk about "bring" and "take" over the years. Here's a recent caller:
"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Sue from Clive, Iowa, and I heard your recent podcast about 'borrow' and 'lend' and how people tend to get this confused, and it reminded me of something that may or may not be equivalent to that. Years ago, I was renting a room to a woman from France for the summer, and she was telling me about how a bunch of her co-workers were going go out to the lake and have a cookout and a picnic, and she said that one of her co-workers was going to bring her to the lake. And that just sounded wrong to me, but I couldn't really explain why. With 'borrow' and 'lend,' the person providing whatever it is is always the lender lending something, and the person receiving whatever that is is always the borrower or borrowing, but what about 'bring' and 'take'? I'm kind of confused. If I am going to give a ride to a party to a friend, am I bringing the friend to the party or am I taking the friend to the party? Love your show. Thanks a lot. Bye."
Thanks, Sue. I’ll start with the basics, and then get to why these words can be tricky.
What is the difference between 'bring' and 'take'?
Whether you use "bring" or "take" generally depends on your point of reference for the action. You ask people to bring things to the place you are, and you take things to the place you are going. As one listener named Simone put it, you bring things here and take things there.
You ask people to bring things to you, and you take things or people to other people or places.
'Bring' or 'take' examples
You ask someone to bring you coffee, and you take the dog to the dog park. You ask people to bring you good news, and you take your camera to the beach.
You ask people to bring things to you, and you take things to other people.
For example, I could ask Aardvark to bring Squiggly to my house Friday. If Fenster later asks Aardvark to go fishing that day, Aardvark would decline with disappointment and say, "I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I promised to take Squiggly to Grammar Girl’s house Friday."
Aardvark would always rather go fishing.
So, I am asking Aardvark to bring Squiggly because I am at the destination—my house. From my perspective, Aardvark is bringing someone here.
Aardvark is saying he has to take Squiggly because he is transporting someone to a remote destination—from Aardvark's perspective, he is taking someone there.
Here are two more examples that help me remember.
First, think of a restaurant where you can get food to go. It's often informally called getting "take out." Imagine yourself paying at the counter. When you get take-out food, you're moving the food from your location—the restaurant—to somewhere else—a destination. And it's take-out food, not bring-out food. You're taking the food from the restaurant to a destination: out. Probably your house, but maybe to a park or a friend’s house.
Second, if I'm sitting at home feeling lazy and wishing dinner would appear, I might say, "I wish someone would just bring me dinner." I think of calling some service, like Uber Eats or DoorDash, that goes to restaurants and gets food for people. From my perspective, they will bring me dinner because dinner is coming to my location.
Exceptions: 'Bring' and 'take'
The simple rules fall apart though when, as Garner’s Modern English Usage puts it, "the movement has nothing to do with the speaker."
Do you describe your French friend’s co-worker as bringing her to the cookout at the lake or taking her to the cookout at the lake?
It simply depends on where you want to place the emphasis of the sentence—which perspective you want to adopt.
If you want to focus on the cookout and write from the perspective of the lake, you say they brought her to the cookout, imagining everyone at the lake in the future.
If you want to focus on the here and now and write from the perspective of home, then you say they will take her to the cookout (which puts the focus on taking her away from your house).
It’s really all a matter of how you imagine the situation and where you want to put the perspective or emphasis.
You might say that since your French friend is the speaker, she should use "take" because she’s being taken away from your house, but even that isn’t so simple.
Here’s another example:
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says you can use either "bring" or "take" when “the notion of direction is irrelevant to the audience” or if someone is imagining they are in another location.
For example, if I am planning a trip, and I say to Squiggly, "We should bring sunscreen to the beach," using “bring” suggests I am already imagining myself at the beach.
If I’m more engrossed in packing my tote and still fully mentally at home, it might be more appropriate to say, "Let’s take sunscreen to the beach."
And because people don’t know what I’m imagining, it’s actually fine to use either "bring" or "take." If you want to be especially deliberate, you can use one or the other to place the emphasis on one location or the other: here or there.
Since your French friend used "bring," maybe she was already imagining everyone at the cookout. She probably didn’t make such a conscious decision, but usage guides wouldn't say her use was wrong.
The past tense of 'bring'
As an aside, in some dialects the past tense of "bring" is "brang" or "brung," and "brung" appears in the saying "dance with the one that brung you," which appears to have originated from a song from the 1920s and has been used by politicians to justify being loyal to the people who helped get them elected. It’s said to have been one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite sayings, for example.
But if you want to use Standard English, the past tense is “brought,” as in, "Aardvark brought me a fish," or "Dance with the one that brought you," which is the title of a Shania Twain song. (And yes, some people would argue that should be "the one who brought you," but that’s a topic for another day.)
What about 'come' and 'go'?
Another interesting note is that the words "come" and "go" follow rules that are similar to those for "bring" and "take."
"Come" is like "bring": You ask people to come here—to come to where you are. "Go" is like "take": You tell people to go away—to move away from your location. Aardvark and Squiggly will come to my house, and when Aardvark says he can’t go fishing, he'll say, "I have to go to Grammar Girl’s house."
'Carry' in the South
If you’re listening from somewhere in the southern United States, you might be thinking "What about 'carry'?" because people in that region sometimes use the word "carry" instead of "bring" or "take." For example, you might hear someone ask, "Can you carry me into town?" if they need a ride or "I’m going to carry her to the dance Friday," to talk about a date.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this use of "carry" to mean to conduct someone or to escort someone goes all the way back to the 1500s, but it’s obsolete now except in dialects, as in the American South.
The Irish twist
Finally, here’s an Irish twist. A number of people have told me that Irish speakers handle "bring" and "take" differently. Apparently Irish speakers use "bring" in more circumstances than American or British speakers would. For example, Wikipedia says an Irish speaker would think it is fine to say "Bring your umbrella with you when you leave," even though the American and British rules favor "take" in that sentence.
Gaeilge has words that are roughly equivalent to "bring" and "take"—"beir" and "tóg"—but the meanings aren’t exactly the same. "Beir" can mean "bring" and "take," and "tóg" means "take," but it can also mean "collect, build" and lots of other things. According to a commenter on the blog going by simbad, in Irish, "take" has more to do with transferring possession than changing location.
To summarize, there are interesting exceptions to the rules, but in the simplest sense, if you’re using American English or British English, remember that when the locations are clear and you are the speaker, you ask people to bring things to you and your location, and you take things to other people and locations.
Thanks to Stan Carey, an Irish writer who helped me with Irish section. Any errors are my own, but he pointed me in the right starting direction.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.