Some people say that "take a decision" is British, but lots of British English speakers deny using the phrase. What's the story?
In a recent podcast, I talked about some differences between British and American English, and I read a listener comment from an American who lived abroad for several years and noticed that British friends said “take a decision” instead of “make a decision,” but then I got a lot of feedback from British people who said they never say or hear “take a decision.” So I did a Twitter poll to try to get more information. (Audio for that podcast is in the upper right corner of the "dead idioms" page.)
First, only 17% of British respondents said they use “take a decision.” Six percent appear to use “take” exclusively, and 11% say they use both “take a decision” and “make a decision.” Most Brits—83%—said they would say they “make a decision,” so that explains why a lot of people responded that “take a decision” wasn’t British—it’s definitely a minority of British speakers who say it.
Second, a Google Ngram search also shows that although “take a decision” is more common in British English, “make a decision” is by far the more common phrase in both British and American English.
'Take a Decision': American English
'Take a Decision': British English
'Took a Decision' or 'Made a Decision'
A couple of interesting things came up in the comments though. Multiple people said that although they say they “make decision,” when they’re using the past tense, they say they “took a decision” instead of they “made a decision.” Since my poll only asked about the present tense options, it didn’t get to this point, so the results could be under-representing take-ness versus make-ness.
'Take a Decision': Foreign Language Parallels
Further, many people mentioned that in their native language, the parallel phrase to “make a decision” is “take a decision.” I heard from a French speaker (prendre une décision), Castilian speaker (tomar una decisión), Swedish speaker, Italian speaker (prendere una decisione), and a Portuguese speaker (tomar uma decisão). So it may be that people who are native speakers from a language that uses “take” and are speaking English as a second language are more likely to say they “take a decision” since it’s the way they’re used to thinking about the phrase.
'Take a Decison': Not New in American English
For what it’s worth, this isn’t a new distinction. In a 1989 “On Language” column in the “New York Times,” William Safire replied to a reader who wrote in bemoaning that the Britishism “take a decision” was becoming more common in America, and even back then, Safire’s response was that “take a decision” was not as new in America as it seemed to the reader. He had a letter from an American colonel from 1951 that used the phrase.
'Take a Decision' and 'Make a Decision': Different Meanings?
Finally, some sources speculate that there is a subtle difference between taking a decision and making a decision, in that making a decision refers more to the process and is something that takes time, and taking a decision is the act of deciding and something that happens in an instant.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”
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