Friday, October 05, 2007

some light verbs: take v(s). make

On to the May queries! Only 5 months behind!

Marian wrote back then to ask:
Can you tell me why some people make decisions and others take them?
The reason, of course, is that some people speak some dialects and other people speak other dialects. AmE speakers generally make decisions and BrE speakers can also take decisions.

Make and take in these contexts are light verbs. Light verb is defined by the Lexicon of Linguistics as "thematically incomplete verb which only in combination with a predicative complement qualifies as a predicate". In other languages, this usually means a fairly semantically-empty verb that occurs with another verb in a sort of compound-verb (Japanese and Korean have lots of these). In English, the term usually refers to verbs that add very little to the sentence but occur with nouns (usually) that have been derived from verbs. So, in this example's case, one could decide with a regular old verb, or make/take a decision with a light verb plus a nominali{s/z}ation of the verb decide: decision.

Since the light verb doesn't actually add much to the sentence (other than giving it a verb, which every English sentence needs), it doesn't matter much to the meaning of the sentence that we use different verbs, and light verb patterns often vary among dialects. Here are some other variations (from my own experience and John Algeo's book), but note the numbers next to them, to be explained below...

AmE -
not-so-AmE


make a copy (38)
take a (carbon) copy (31)
take a vacation (/holiday 219)
have a holiday (123)
take a look (1841)
have a look at (1607)
take a shower/bath (106/86)
have a shower/bath (102/114)
take a nap (41)
have a nap (36)
get exercise (15)
take exercise (71)
The way to think of these is probably not that the left column is (exclusively) AmE and that the right column is BrE, but that the right column includes items that are more at home in BrE than in AmE, and the left column has items that may be found in BrE as well as AmE. The OED shows us, for example, that Caxton (1490) had make with decision and Dickens (1837) used take with bath.

The numbers in the table indicate the number of hits that I got when I searched the (UK) Guardian website for each of these phrases, and as you can see there are many, if not more, of the left-column phrasings on that UK site. Of course, some of those may be by AmE speakers (in quotations) or writers. Some may be from American wire stories, etc. But it's at least good evidence that the AmE versions are not as unfamiliar or 'foreign' sounding in BrE as the right-column versions are likely to be in AmE (from my own and Marian's judg(e)ment, at least).

In fact, I just gave London-born-and-bred Better Half the following fill-in-the-verb quiz:
  1. I need to _____ a copy of that.
  2. I need to _____ a holiday.
  3. You should ____ a look at that document.
  4. You need to ____ a shower!
  5. I want to _____ a nap.
  6. I really should _____ some exercise.
He answered out of the AmE column above for everything but number 6. A fault of the experiment is that he may have been primed to say take for 3-5 after saying take for 2. But mix up the sentences and try them on your better half, friend, child or passers-by and see what they say!

12 comments:

dearieme said...

"Take a girl like you."
"Make a girl like you."
Hm.

zhoen said...

I need to get some exercise. Grabby, taking people, us Am/E speakers.

John Cowan said...

There is also AmE take a T versus BrE have a T, where T is any of various four-letter terms for excrements.

Marian said...

Thanks for the reply, Lynne. Very interesting!

Ben Zimmer said...

There was a long thread about "make/take a decision" on alt.usage.english a few months ago.

jhm said...

It doesn't seem to fit the definition of light verb, but I've always found 'make a right/left' foreign sounding compared to 'take a right/left.'

Angie said...

I would use 'do' for the last one: "I need to do some exercise".

Neither 'take' nor 'have' sound right to me. (AusE)

Cameron said...

Jhm, everything is foreign to almost everyone. Foreign from what perspective?

Anonymous said...

Off topic but on blog entry: I get the feeling that "The reason, of course, is that some people speak different dialects than other people" should have been flagged up as AmE...

lynneguist said...

You're right, of course. See my previous posting on the subject.

Will go back and change it now to a dialectally-neutral 'from'!

RWMG said...

2-5 have, 1 and 6 get

Elian said...

Hey Lynneguist, do you see any difference tone wise between "have a seat" and "take a seat?" I'd say that the former sounds more like the polite way to offer somebody to be seated, like a host to a ghest, whereas the latter sounds more direct and less friendly, like what a teacher may say to a student. What do you think?