some light verbs

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!


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

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

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

  4. Thanks for the reply, Lynne. Very interesting!

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

  6. 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.'

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

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

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

  9. 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...

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

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

  11. 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?

  12. I'm an editor for a management consultancy that started in the US but is now global. We typically edit in US English, but that's largely a practical decision stemming from the nationalities of the editors involved. In a pinch, we switch to other Englishes as requested; since we're writing business prose, the changes are usually minimal and cause me little difficulty.


    Like every editor, I have my irrational obsessions. And I hate, loathe, despise, abhor, detest, and abominate unto God the phrase take a decision.

    It's the metaphor that plucks every individual fiber of my very American nervous system. Decisions aren't something you take down from shelf, prebaked, preformed, premasticated and predigested for all I know. Any decision worth talking about is created, forged, formed -- maybe even tempered or annealed. It is made, dammit.

    Any decision that's taken might as well result from a coin toss, so who cares?

  13. Lynne

    Better Half might well have given different answers to 3-5 of your quiz if you'd phrased them with different modality/polarity. e.g.

    3. I managed to ____ a look at that document.
    4. There wasn't time time to ____ a shower.
    5. I really don't want to _____ a nap.

    As it happens, I've been trying (not for the first time) to get my head around unaccusative and unergative verbs. I wonder whether I make a distinction (not consistently, but fairly often) between

    take a shower etc — unergative I actively go about it.
    have a shower etc unaccusative I passively let the water do its work.

    Yes, of course there is agency in looking, showering and napping. But I think I perceive the agency as preceding a more passive phase of experience. The take versions (I think) highlight the initial agency and the have versions the resulting passivity.

    1. I see this suggestion doesn't square with the terminology you start from. So let me tentatively rephrase....

      look 1 — 'direct one's visually attention and observe'
      shower 1 — 'initiate and follow though the process of showering'
      nap 1 — 'decide on and carry out a brief sleep'

      look 2 — 'see for a short while, as planned'
      shower 2 — 'enjoy the sensation of showering'
      nap 2 — 'experience a short sleep, possible as planned'

      I can now suggest that
      • unergative verbs invite take as a light verb
      • unaccusative verbs invite have as a light verb
      • a light verb causes the lexical(?) verb to transform into a noun phrase

      Even more tentatively...

      Since I looked, I showered, I napped etc can be ambiguous between unergativity and unaccusativity, some of use some of the time resolve the ambiguity (if we notice it) by rephrasing with the appropriate light verb.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)