Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Me, Take On You?! No, You Take On Me!

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2007

If you didn’t like reading my last few posts, then you certainly won’t enjoy a posting from the Tensor from last November, about the song “Take On Me.” Its chorus begins,

Take on me… (take, on, me!)
Take me on… (take, on, me!)
I’ll be gone…

Supposedly more words follow, which the Tensor read from the karaoke captioning when he heard the song again last year. All I could ever hear was an unintelligible falsetto wail. Anyway, during the summer of 1985, when I heard this song on the radio every day, I thought the reversal of on and me in the two lines was some fun word-play (or perhaps I should call it syntax-play). However, if you did read those last few posts of mine, you’ll have noticed something unusual about the first line of the chorus.

On the one hand, the variable position of on with respect to me would seem to be a dead giveaway that on is a particle, not a preposition. On the other hand, as you no doubt remember, you can’t just go putting personal pronouns after particles. You can put them after prepositions, yes, but for take on me to fly when on is a particle, the me has to be a stressed pronoun, like you might find in:

ME, take on YOU?! No, YOU take on ME!

There doesn’t seem to be any call for a stress on me in the song, so now I’m wondering why I never had a problem with the phrasing in all these years. Maybe the fact that it’s sung, with the me (and the take and the on) taking up four beats of music, allowed it to squeak by.

Actually, when I started writing this post, I was thinking that the Tensor had also been saying that for him, take on+[noun phrase] and take+[noun phrase]+on had different meanings, one of them being the “contend with” meaning, and the other being the “bring on board, assume, acquire” meaning. I was quite interested in this claim, wondering if this might be a case of a single phrasal verb splitting into separate lexical items, and was getting all set to do some Google-searching to see what I found. But when I reviewed the Tensor’s post, I found he hadn’t made such a claim at all. He was just wondering which meaning the songwriter had intended, since neither seemed to make much sense. So, nevermind. FWIW, I found attestations of each meaning for both take on+[noun phrase] and take+[noun phrase]+on. And IMO, the “contend” meaning was the intended one, but figuratively, in the same way that a few years earlier, Pat Benatar issued the challenge to “Hit me with your best shot!”

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One Response to “Me, Take On You?! No, You Take On Me!

  1. mike engel said

    “On the one hand, the variable position of on with respect to me would seem to be a dead giveaway that on is a particle, not a preposition.”

    Not sure why you would make this mistake. ON is a preposition whether in front of or after the pronoun ME. Yes it is a bit of an irregular usage of ME and ON but also quite a colloquially grammatical speech act that any poet, song writer, or even e.e. cummings would find quite acceptable and felicitous.

    My reasoning: ON’s role in locating position or ‘where / to whom / for whom’ the ‘take’ action happens is quite clear in either phrasal verb. Take on me = let me have a part in your (life – fight – endeavor – affair……..). Take me on = I challenge you to let me be a part of your (life – fight – endeavor – affair……)

    Thus ON is a preposition not a particle and can take ME wherever the poet song writer cares to place the two. I think your 1985 self intuitively understood this!?
    THANKS for listening.

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