making and taking decisions

I've mentioned making and taking decisions before (15 years ago!), in the context of writing about light verbs. That was back in the days of shorter blog posts. The post began with a reader query:

Can you tell me why some people make decisions and others take them?

And I said (emphasis added): 
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 verbsLight 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 decidedecision.

Because I'm thinking about the language of decision-making elsewhere in my life, I had a deeper look into how much decision-taking happens. The key thing to notice is that taking a decision is not the most comon way to say it in BrE. While BrE speakers (in 2012, when this data's from) write take a decision at six times the rate that AmE speakers do, they write make a decision at nearly 18 times the rate that they say take.

In popular discussions of language, there's a tendency for people to perceive phrases that one group says and the other doesn't as the British way versus the American way. But English gives us lots of ways to say lots of things, and the number of ways that one group has doesn't have to be the same number of ways as another group has. That's the case here. British has more light verb variation with the word decision than AmE has. 

There's another (not unrelated) tendency in popular transatlantic language discussions to assume that if BrE is using the same form as AmE when it has another form available, then they must be using the "more American" form because of "Americani{s/z}ation". Is that what's happening here?

Here's make/take a decision in Hansard, the record of the UK parliament (where lots of decisions happen!) over 210 years. You can see that people didn't these constructions much before the 20th century, and at the start (before 1940), there is some preference for take. But the numbers and the  differences are small. Because the amount of data for each decade is uneven, one needs to look at the colo(u)rs when comparing across years. The darker the blue, the more 'of that time' the phrasing is. There are two things to notice about this: 
  • There's been more make than take since the 1930s. 
  • In 'the most take' decades (1960s onward), take is playing second fiddle to make.
  • If there's AmE influence, it's happening well before mass media. 
  • There might be a different pattern emerging for making a decision versus taking the decision. Maybe taking feels more definite than making. After all, things come into existence through making. We take things that are already known to exist.

As for the history of AmE, it's a pretty solidly make place, with just a bit of take in the 1940s—and then a spark of it in the 2010s. Nascent British influence? Looking at US occurrences of it in his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, Ben Yagoda calls it 'a novelty'. 



Going a bit deeper into the history, the OED tells us that make a decision has been around (in England) since the early 1600s, and take a decision shows up (in London) in the late 1700s, in a period where the US and UK aren't talking to each other much. This helps explain why make is more present in all of the time periods in both places and why take has no roots in AmE.



So there's what I've been looking at recently! 

29 comments

  1. I think the difference in this case might have a greater socio or anthro linguist reason. Who has control? Group vs individual? Democratic vs authoritative procedures ?

    I am interested in is how light verbs differ from modals. Can have or got be considered a light verb in some contexts (e .g. Having breakfast, dinner, a meeting)

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    1. Modals precede verbs and express modality—e.g. definiteness, possibility. Light verbs are fairly empty semantically speaking and precede nouns (often nouns derived from verbs). There are some links to explanations and a past blog post in the post here. Click on those and you'll see 'have' in some.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this--new information to me! I think you'll want to add a word in "You can see that people didn't take these constructions". (No need to post this comment--it's not relevant to the subject of your post.)

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  3. Ideally the OED should have labeled "take a decision" as "chiefly British", but it's harder for British editors to notice when an expression is not used outside BrE.

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  4. Huh, it seems to me that OED should have compared their entries for take and decision more closely, because there's a much older example of "take a decision" under take, sense 80c, "transitive. To conceive and adopt (a purpose, resolution, estimate, point of view, etc.); to form and hold in the mind.":

    1639 Declinatour & Protestation Pretended Bishops 8 Appellations of laick patrons were ordained by act of Parliament to end and take decision at the generall Assembly.

    (I think "take decision" still counts, even without the "a"; maybe you disagree?)

    So is the expression "take a decision" really younger than the United States? You may want to do a more detailed search of 17th- and 18th-century corpora to see if there are any other pre-1795 examples out there.

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  5. I barely have competence to comment on this, but to my naive and linguistically ignorant mind, "take a decision" feels as if it has some shared history with the phrase "take an idea", which corresponds more what ktschwarz above cites from the OED as meaning "to form and hold in the mind."

    Whether the two really have a shared usage is beyond my knowledge. Certainly when "take" is combined with something that feels more decisive, such as "a decision" it would appear to have some stronger meaning that when combined with something as slight as "an idea". Still, it's not hard to imagine an evolution from when decision-making was preceded by "taking various ideas", and slowly the act of arriving at the decision became known as "taking a decision", referring to the final step rather than the process that led up to it.

    This could also help explain the take/make difference here. That same evolution could retain its initial "taking various ideas" phase of reaching a decision, but the process was concluded by "making a decision", differentiating it from the more consideration-driven earlier part of the process.

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    1. What version of English do you speak, PDTF? In 70 years of British English, I don't think I have ever used or heard the construction 'take an idea'. I can just about visualise it as part of the decision-making process, if you were to 'take/ take up/ take hold of an idea and consider it'.
      But note that the process is decision-making - the final stage is when a decision (or action) is taken.

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  6. This is a comment-catching comment

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    1. I use an RSS feed reader to follow comments on this blog, and it works perfectly. The only wrinkle is that it couldn't automatically find the feed that collects comments for *all* posts (rather than a separate feed for each post); I had to go to the front page, copy the link under "Subscribe to all comments", and paste that in as the feed URL when creating a new subscription:
      https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/feeds/comments/default

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  7. This reminded me of a phrase that is used by several of the people on the show "This Old House" (PBS home remodeling show that's been on forever). They often say "take and put" or "take and saw", using "take" perhaps to emphasize the action. The show is set in Boston and the people who use the "take and..." phrase are the hard-core "Bahston" natives.

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    1. Actually, I live in upstate NY where we use that expression all the time in giving directions. I don't know if it is used in other parts of the country, but no one has ever pointed out that it sounded weird (like they do some of my other expressions/use of words!).

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    2. And now that I am thinking of it, we say "take a right at the light" for example but I do know many who would say "make a right at the traffic light."

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    3. Only in American English,though - in British English we turn right at the lights!

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  8. "Take a decision" is one of those expressions that I find disproportionately grating. I suspect this is in part because my logical mind thinks the kind of action commonly connoted by "take" (lay hold of/gain possession of/occupy) doesn't really apply to something as abstract as a decision.

    I have a similar but perhaps even stronger dislike for "take measures".

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    1. Rob
      I am interested in what verb you would use in conjunction with 'initiative'. Would you take it, grasp it, seize it or perhaps use some other verb. I ask because initiative is a similarly abstract concept to a decision. And of course, saying 'I initiated something' does not mean the same as taking the initiative, whereas 'I decided' can be pretty synonymous with 'I took the decision'.

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    2. I would use "take" in conjunction with "initiative". As you point out, this is a similarly abstract concept to a decision. Hmm.

      I tend to think of "take the initiative" as a fixed idiomatic expression with no viable alternatives, which is not true of "take a decision".

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  9. I wonder if "take a decision" was influenced by French, where one can only "prendre une d├ęcision".

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  10. I’m a native English speaker, born & raised in 1960’s SW London, now in exile on the South Coast. I’ve never considered this before, but for me, ‘to take a decision’ is a more active and conclusive way to say that you came to one and will act on it. It implies that not only might the decision have been difficult or unclear, or have profound consequences, but that you also intend to implement it. To me, it has an energy about it that ‘make’ does not convey.

    ‘I took a decision’ suggests a relatively tough process and/ or a significant outcome, with no ‘take backs’. It’s what a CEO might say when they lay off staff.

    ‘I made a decision’ sounds to me that there may have been less riding on it, and that the action may never have progressed beyond the thinking stage. It lacks the force and finality of the first version. You might make a decision to go to the cinema if nothing better comes along.

    Thus, I made the decision to write this comment, but I took the decision to post it.

    My best guess as to why I feel this way about two silly, often interchangeable little words is that ‘take’ is generally a more dynamic word, often implying an absence of something (hence a less positive connotation). When you ‘take’ something, you might grasp it firmly to do so, and you might convey it elsewhere, or even deny it to another by the taking.

    Whereas, to ‘make a decision’ strikes me as a cerebral action, with ‘make’ being a productive word with more constructive associations.

    Well, that’s my take anyway.

    BTW, in your 2007 quiz, my score was 6/6 for the AmE side (my English forebears are reeling; my Welsh, Irish, French, and Spanish ones are LOL) though, where ‘take a shower’ works for me, I would instruct someone to ‘have’ a bath.

    Thank you for your contribution to preventing my brain from completely atrophying in these isolating times. :-)

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    1. Native English (AU variety) speaker here who has been in the USA for 30 years. I agree with your take on this, which so succinctly summarized in your 4th paragraph.

      "Thus, I made the decision to write this comment, but I took the decision to post it."

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  11. Great post! I'm curious if this is similar/different to when one "takes" an exam. I went to school mostly in the US, but also at a boarding school in the British style. In the US the teacher "gave" an exam and the students "took" it. In a British-style school the teacher "took" an exam and the students "gave" it. I can see a justification for both, but the opposite verbiage is intriguing. I'd love to learn more about that!

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    1. Actually, that’s not correct: in the UK, teachers set exams and students take them.

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    2. In my day at school - sixties - we used to set exams.

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    3. Or even "sit exams". :-) Oops!

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  12. Lynne,

    If this isn't going too off topic, can I bring up another variation I perceive to exist between BrE and AmE relating to 'take'? A BrE speaker would generally 'take' something (like a bottle of wine) to a friend's house, whereas the AmE person is more likely to 'bring' something to their friend's home. Do I have this correctly?

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    1. Surely the bottle of wine is 'taken' from the guest's point of view, but 'brought' from the host's?

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    2. Kate,
      My examples were prospective, ie before arriving at the friend's hone. Obviously, when at the party both idioms would probably say that they brought wine to the party. However, in the BrE idiom, when relating the events some time later, it is still probable that the Brit would say "I took a bottle of Veuve Clichot to the Henderson's 50th wedding anniversary but most other people brought Prosecco"

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    3. As a Australian, who has now spent half of my life in the USA, I find this take/bring issue still throws me. It definitely seems switched in my adopted land compared to the land of my schooling.

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  13. I agree that "take a decision" has more weight than "make". Parliament takes a decision to pass a law, a corporation takes a decision to open a new branch. But you'd never say you took a decision about what to have for lunch.

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  14. Thank you for explaining the construction involving a light verb and the nominalisation of the semantic verb. This explains why, although we can decide, and make decisions, we can't decide decisions.

    While playing a game, we can make a play or make a move by moving a piece, but we can't play a play, game a game or move a move. English is averse to a verb's nominalisation being object of that verb. But, as David Parlett pointed out in The Oxford History of Board Games, French and German have no such aversion: on joue un jeu; man spielt ein Spiel. So English theoretically could do this. Seeing as this is idiomatic in some other languages, why not English? (This might also help explain how come "talk the talk" and "walk the walk" sound wrong.)

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Abbr.

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