Editor’s Note: Bear Facts

There are certain words in the English language that seem to be born troublemakers. One of these is bear. It should be noted that I am not referring to the noun; Smokey has enough problems of his own. No, I’m talking about the verb bear. Bear with me while I explain.

The basic meaning of bear is “carry” or “endure.” We bear burdens. We bear responsibility. We bear someone no ill will. Soldiers bear arms. Your physical bearing is your carriage or posture. A mechanical bearing carries and distributes weight. Abstractly, bearing may mean influence or weight: “This has no bearing on the issue.” A compass bearing is a direction; if we lose our bearings, we go astray. In some cases, bear imposes the weight rather than supports it, meaning “press”: “Bear down; you’re making six copies.”

A secondary meaning of bear is “produce” or “yield” or “give birth to.” A tree bears fruit. A woman [after bearing down with each contraction] bears a child.

Pay close attention to that last example, because this is where so many people lose their bearings. A woman carries a child while pregnant; she bears the child when she gives birth. She has then borne the child (borne is the past participle of bear), but the child has been born. The confusion between borne and born is obviously not surprising given the close relationship they bear. But you can avoid error if you just ask yourself whether you mean “carried/produced” or “given birth to.” Another clue: the participle born will always occur with some form of the verb to be (is, was, has been, will be, etc.) and will often be followed by “out of.” (Not to be confused with “borne out by,” where “borne out” means “confirmed,” as in “That conclusion is borne out by the facts presented.”) Some examples taken from my reading:

“It wasn’t romantic, she said, just a dedicated platonic love borne through the decades of friendship.” [Correct: They carried or maintained their love. But their love could also have been born out of their friendship.]

a terrible slight not to be borne [Correct: It could not be endured.]

mosquito-borne diseases [Correct: Mosquitoes carry and spread certain diseases.]

The public library, which became an integral part of American life in the 19th century, was born of the great American idea — of a free marketplace for ideas and material goods. [Correct: The “great American idea” gave birth to the public library.]

one patient in hard labor and another who has borne a dead baby [Correct: The woman has given birth to the baby.]

“Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories,” which was born out of the course she teaches at Agnes Scott. [Correct: The course was the source that produced the article.]

In reality, the whole project was borne out of frustration. [Incorrect: Frustration gave birth to the project.]

During the plague, these lonely deaths were borne not out of public health protocols but out of sheer terror. [Incorrect: Sheer terror was responsible for the lonely deaths.]

Some tips:

  • If you can substituted “carried” or “yielded,” then “borne” is the right word.
  • “Born” is not the right word unless there is a birthdate involved.

Another confusion arises between the simple past of bear (bore) and the verb bore, meaning to “drill.” I could multiply examples of “His eyes bore into hers for a connection.” The past tense of bore is bored, which is what is called for in this past-tense example.

And then of course, there’s the homophone, as evidenced in this Facebook post: “My writing skills are not the best , so bare with me.” Talk about exposing your ignorance! Unless you are proposing a game of strip poker, please do not make this mistake!

But since we’ve touched on the word bare meaning “reveal” or “expose,” here’s an intriguing example. In this case, the character has concealed from her husband the rape that was the reason for an abortion. She’s now been accused of his murder and has revealed this history to her defense lawyer.

She took his silence as an accusation. “I suppose you think it would have been better if I had borne all to him and told him the truth.”

I could be wrong, but I think what was meant here was “if I had bared all.” I suspect that “bared,” even if spelled correctly, may have sounded so much like “beared” that the author or an editor “corrected” it to “borne.” If that’s the case, then of course neither “born” nor “borne” would have been the right word.

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