Q&A: Born vs borne

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's the “borne” identity…

Q: Hi AWC, can you explain when to use ‘born’ and when to use ‘borne’?

A: Were you born yesterday?

Q: Um, no. I was not born yesterday.

A: Right, so there’s one way to use “born” – in relation to “birth”. This can mean the physical birth of a human or animal to start its independent life. It can also refer to something more abstract.

Q: Oh, like the abstract painting of a splotch I bought for twelve grand?

A: Well, sure. Like an idea being born. Or the birth of a nation.

Q: I’d say most people don’t struggle with this. It’s more about when to use “borne”. 

A: Fair enough. But first, let’s have a history lesson.

Q: Oh goody. My favourite.

A: Ahem. Well this one is kind of interesting. Etymologically, “born” actually came from the word “boren” – a now defunct past participle of the also extinct “beran”, relating to “bear”. One definition relates to the act of “bearing children”.

Q: Like Goldilocks?

A: No.

Q: But that was about bearing children wasn’t it?

A: Well, technically that was about three bears coming home to find an intruder had broken into their home, broken their furniture, eaten their food and slept in their beds. If she hadn’t had golden locks, perhaps the reporting would have been different. #goldwashed

Q: Um, sure.

A: Anyway, “bearing children” saw the verb “bear” cover both the carrying and giving birth of offspring. It wasn’t until the 17th century that we got two words to describe the past participles of bearing something. “Born” was reserved for the act of birth itself while “borne” took on the carrying part.

Q: Great history lesson. But where does this leave us today?

A: “Born” remains linked specifically to the act of birth, while “borne” operates wider as the verb past participle of “to bear” – instead of the incorrect “beared”.

Q: Examples?

A: Goldilocks was born into privilege. After her home invasion, the burden was borne (not “beared”) by the three bears as they sought to recover from their terrifying ordeal.

Q: Um, okay. So if something is “borne” – it has been carried?

A: Yes, as that’s one of the “bear” definitions. So we see it as a suffix especially with relation to diseases, e.g., “water-borne”, “mosquito-borne”, “blood-borne” and so on. It means “carried by” in these cases.

Q: But if you were born in Australia, you’re Australian-born?

A: That’s right, no “e”. This is because it relates to where you were born, not the act of bearing. Apply this rule to any other phrases that relate to being born to do something (such as “a born leader”) rather than carrying something.

Q: What about if I said that my skills were “born of experience”? Or is it “borne”?

A: No, “born” is correct – as the skills arose from experience; think of them as emerging birth-like as a result of experience.

Q: Is this the same as saying something like, “the widespread protests were born out of a response to a recent incident”?

A: Yes. You’d use “born” because in the abstract, as it was the incident that birthed – or started – the protests into the world. 

Q: So WHEN exactly are the other times you’d use “borne’?

A: Well, besides “bearing a burden” (“the burden was borne”), there is also the phrase “borne out” – meaning “confirmed”. This one regularly causes confusion. So while the protests were born out of an incident, you might say that the prediction of widespread damage was borne out in the days that followed.

Q: Wow, so the same sentence has “born out” and “borne out”. Ouch.

A: Sure, but remember, one is operating simply as “born” while the other is a two-word phrase synonymous with “confirmed”. 

Q: More examples?

A: Well, any time you’d be able to use the verb “bear” in the present tense, you should use “borne” as its past participle. We’ve already covered the definition of carrying (i.e., “to bear a burden”). Another definition is to produce something, for example, “this idea will bear fruit”. Therefore, you’d say, “this idea had borne fruit”.

Q: But wait, that fruit sounds like it’s been birthed! Shouldn’t it be “born”?

A: Nope. But this is probably the area most people get wrong. The definition “to produce” IS similar, but remember – if in doubt, see if you can rephrase it in the present tense with bear (i.e., “to bear fruit”). If you can, then it should be “borne”. If it is simply linked to birthing/starting, it’s born.

Q: That’s a pretty handy hint! So if you should “bear something in mind” then you’d say “it should be borne in mind”?

A: Exactly! Linked to “bear”, use borne. Linked to “birth”, use born.

Q: And Jason Bourne? Where does he factor into all of this?

A: Well, um, nowhere. We could try and work him into a sentence if you like?

Q: Ohhh, yes please!

A: Okay. “Jason Bourne’s abilities were born out of a US-born top secret initiative and having borne the brunt of its lies for too long, he becomes an airborne rogue operative, as his suspicions about his true identity are borne out.”

Q: Thanks! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to visit my nephew. He WAS born yesterday…

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