One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
‘Bare’ or ‘bear’?
Bare and bear are homophones – that is, they sound the same – but have very different meanings. Where it is often misused for bare is when it is used as a verb. The verb bear relates to carrying or supporting whereas the verb bare means ‘to uncover (a part of the body or other thing) and expose it to view’:
He was bearing a tray of brimming glasses.
Steamboats bear the travellers home.
The walls cannot bear the weight of a stone vault.
He bared his chest to show his scar.
She grinned, baring an impressive row of teeth.
The verb bear can also be used of figurative carrying and supporting, commonly in relation to bearing a name (i.e. to be called by it), carrying the weight of responsibility (The tenant will bear the expert’s fee), or to ‘be able to accept or stand up to’ (His claims may not bear scrutiny).
Bear can also mean to endure an ordeal or difficulty (She bore the pain stoically), to manage to tolerate something (often phrased with the negative; she could not bear his sarcasm), or to dislike strongly (I can’t bear parsnips).
Finally, bear can mean to give birth to a child (when said of a person) or the produce fruit or flowers (when said of a plant or tree):
She bore six daughters. (bore is the past tense of bear)
Plants can bear flowers and fruits at the same time.
Until the 18th century, borne and born were simply variant forms of the past participle of bear, used interchangeably. At that time borne became the standard past participle used in all the senses listed above, and remains so today. Born became restricted to just one very common use, which remains the case today: in the passive, without by, to refer to birth: she was born in 1965.
Several everyday expressions and phrasal verbs use bear; using bare in these expressions is a common mistake:
Bear on: ‘be relevant to (something)’
Bear (something) out: ‘support or confirm (something)’
Bear up: ‘remain cheerful in the face of adversity’
Bear with: ‘be patient or tolerant with’
And bear can also, of course, be a noun – denoting the animal.
Unlike bear, bare can also be an adjective, and is often used to describe someone or something that is uncovered, or without the appropriate or usual contents.
She padded in bare feet towards the door.
Leaf fall had left the trees bare.
It was a bare cell with just a mattress.
Other meanings of the very versatile adjective bare are ‘without addition; basic and simple’, ‘only just sufficient’, or ‘surprisingly small in number or amount’.
He outlined the bare bones of the story.
They had the bare minimum of furniture.
All you need to start is a bare £500.
Here are some tips for identifying which word to use:
- if you need an adjective, always use bare
- if you want a verb which has anything to do with carrying, supporting, or enduring: use bear
- if you want a verb which has anything to do with uncovering: use bare
Back to Usage.
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