Words that come and go

Some verbs have direction, while others are directionless. If you “play,” what you’re playing or whether you initiated the play is irrelevant. But do you “go out to play” or “come out to play”? Do you “bring a friend to play with you,” or “take a friend to play with you”?

The answer is our favorite one: It depends.

For most people, the difference between “go” and “come” seems obvious. If you’re indoors and your friends are playing outdoors, you “go” out to join them. Your friends, though, want you to “come” out to join them. If the positions were reversed and you’re issuing the invitation, you want them to “come” to you; they would then “go” inside to play.

The movement is relative to the point of view of the speaker: “Go” is away from the current position; “come” is toward the current position.

If you can remember that, you can remember the difference between “bring” and “take.” That pair seems so much harder that many usage guides that discuss “bring” and “take” don’t even include entries on “come” and “go.” But it’s not so hard il you develop your own memory tricks.

Here’s one: If you would use “go,” then you probably want “take” in the same situation. And if you would use “come,” then you probably want “bring” in the same situation. “Don’t forget to take the lemon squares to the party” means that you are “going” to the party, and someone wants to remind you what to “take.” She’s thinking from the perspective of someone not yet at the party. “Don’t forget to bring the lemon squares to the party” means someone is using the perspective of being at the party; she might herself be “coming” to the party, and is awaiting the lemony deliciousness.

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Our favorite mnemonic to remember the difference is to imagine this scene: “Bring me the head of my enemy!” a dictator cries, offering a reward. Someone does. “Ewww, take it away!” the nauseated dictator cries.

But, as we are also fond of saying, these are guidelines, not rules. For “come” and “go,” as Brian A. Garner says in his Garner’s Modern English Usage, “there is room for nuance in using these words,” and there’s always room for idiom. The same is true of “bring” and “take.”

Unless the direction the object is going is very clear, it might not matter, especially “when the movement has nothing to do with the speaker,” as Garner’s says. There, “the choice of bring or take depends on motion toward or away from whatever is being discussed.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage spends a full page disparaging “usage commentators” who insist on “the oversimplification” of the distinction. That volume was last published in 1994, long before we started writing this column, so they couldn’t have been referring to us. And anyway, our explanations are intended to prompt you to think for yourself, so you don’t follow rules blindly. 

As M-W Usage says, “It is pointless to try to impose one’s point of view on something that has been written from a different point of view.” As an example, it mentions two people heading for the park, and one of them thinks it might rain. “Don’t forget to bring the umbrella,” one says, even though they are “going” to the park and one might think they should be “taking” the umbrella. The direction is irrelevant in this case, M-W Usage notes, and so “take” would be equally correct: “The message is to make sure the umbrella is at the park in case of rain.”

In journalism, where reporting is usually written as a third-person observation of the actions of others, the direction of an action is often irrelevant. In those cases, advice about whether to use “bring” or “take” should be “taken” less pedantically. Does it matter whether someone not at the party is asking you to “take” or “bring” the lemon squares there? Does it matter whether the president is “bringing” a book on vacation or “taking” it? If the direction is not important to the action, “go” with your gut. And the lemon squares.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.