Bring vs Take – Which Should You Choose?

In writing seminars, people often ask about the words bring and take. Usually it is because their mothers, fathers, or English teachers repeatedly corrected them, and they want to know whether they can finally forget those old nagging corrections.

The reference guides that touch on this question (Chicago Manual of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, The Right Word) explain this way:

  • Use bring to indicate motion toward the speaker. (Please bring me a soda.) 
  • Use take to indicate motion away from the speaker. (I will take that dress back to the store.)

Those rules must have satisfied our mothers, fathers, and teachers. But do they always work?  How do they apply in these sentences?

  1. I am not sure whether to bring/take an umbrella on the tour. 
    Nothing is coming toward or going away from the speaker. The umbrella would travel with the speaker.
  2. I may bring/take a dessert to Emma’s party.
    Once again, something travels with the speaker–not toward or away from.
  3. What would you like me to bring/take to your party?
    Here something is traveling toward the listener–not the speaker.

Of my reference books, only Fowler’s Modern English Usage admits the weakness of the rules above. The revised third edition states:

“There are many circumstances, however, in which this simple distinction does not apply: e.g., if we are going to the zoo, shall we bring/take the camera?”

Thank you, Mr. Fowler, for admitting how the rules can let us down.

Here are my new third and fourth rules on bring and take:

  • Use bring when the motion is toward the listener. (I will bring a key lime pie to your party.)
  • Use bring or take when the motion is with the speaker. (I will bring a change of clothes to work OR I will take a change of clothes to work.)

Many things seem to have been easier in my mother and father’s day–including bring and take. By doubling the number of rules, I may have made life more complex, but I like it better this way. What do you think?

Final note: As I was finishing this entry and putting my reference books back on the shelves, I remembered Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, both of which I keep on a closed bookshelf. When I checked O’Conner, I found that she too has attempted to clear up the bring and take ambiguity. In Woe Is I, she discusses the idea of bringing or taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party. She concludes: Clear? If not, pour yourself a glass, take it easy, and say what sounds most natural. You will probably be right.” 

Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Bring vs Take – Which Should You Choose?”

  • Now here is a good one. As a teacher of English as a second language, I have run across this dilemma many times. Bring, or take, which one?
    I generally explain to my students to choose between a “controlled motion” and an “after thought motion”.
    The example being, if I take my umbrella on tour, I know I will need it. (I control the action of taking my umbrella). On the other hand, if I bring my umbrella on tour, I do it just in case I need it. (The action of bringing “follows” me, or is “behind” me as an after thought.)
    If we look at your other example of taking or bringing a cake to the party, I think in this way.
    If I take the cake to the party, I do it because I want to make a good impression on my host. If I bring the cake, it is because my host asked me to do so, or I have some leftover in my fridge. I can take the leftovers to make an impression, or bring them because I have them. Then when you arrive to the party of course you will say, I brought this cake as an after thought, and wait for the smile from your host knowing you took it just to get that smile!
    A third example is take/bring the kids to school. You take your kids to school. (Under control) You bring your kids to school. (As an after thought AHHHHHHHH I forgot the kids, as you glanced in the rearview mirror!!)
    What do you think? Have I used this taken opportunity well, or shall I bring you another bottle of wine?!

  • Your methodology is fascinating and fun to read. I have never seen anything like it regarding “bring” and “take.”

    Because it’s unique, though, I don’t know that it is a good approach for your students who are learning English as a second language. They would probably benefit from a defensible textbook approach, even if it doesn’t cover all situations. What do you think?

    Thanks for bringing your ideas here.


  • Thanks for your comments.
    I teach ESL to all ages. Without a doubt, the standard approach using a textbook works well with younger students who don’t really have a broad understanding of their own language. However, with an adult student, this thinking is a bit out of the box yet offers a perspective they can relate to in their own language. It is translatable!
    Many professional adults wanting to learn English as a second language don’t know their own grammar and have forgotten what a predicate is let alone what it means. Not to mention the fact that most adults ask: Study? What’s that, something you buy in a supermarket? or Who has time for that?
    I, therefore, try putting situations around the explanations rather than textbook facts that don’t cover the issue completely, and which make them feel like they never learned anything.
    What matters to them is getting the message across. For some, having another language to relate to along with a situation to compare with has the upper hand when in a face-to-face conversation situation and where trying to remember textbook defences just doesn’t work.

  • I’m still confused. Is it “Take an umbrella with you?” or “Bring an umbrella with you?”

  • Unless there is a clear action toward or away from the speaker-writer, either “bring” or “take” is correct.

    Toward the speaker:
    “Bring an umbrella with you when you travel with us.”

    Away from the speaker:
    “Goodbye! Wait–don’t forget to take your umbrella.”

    I hope that explanation helps.

Comments are closed.