Friday, October 17, 2008

Take the good with the bad

I hear athletes somewhat frequently saying during interviews that they would need to "take the good with the bad."  This is an inversion of how the expression once was and for most of us (I believe) still is, namely "take the bad with the good."  The obvious idea of the latter is that what we want are the good parts of something, but inevitably, taking the good parts will have undesired negative consequences.  I want a piece of cake. That's the good stuff. Unfortunately, eating it is likely to have several undesirable health  consequences.

I struggle to understand what "take the good with the bad" is trying to suggest. Interestingly, the second Google offering for this phrase was to The Free Dictionary wherein it was transformed into "take the bad with the good."  So, it seems, Google gags on the phrase "take the good with the bad." However, I googled "young people take the good with the bad" and the fourth entry (but the first relevant one) referred me to a New York Times article.  I was not suprised that page referred to was in the sports section. The title of the story was
Mets Take the Good With the Bad (Again)
This title, as it turns out, is strange given the fact that seems to have initiated the story. The first two paragraphs read:
Even when the Mets have good news to report, they still cannot shake the dark clouds.

Such was the case yesterday when the club eagerly announced signing Lance Johnson to a two-year contract extension, but then revealed that pitcher Paul Wilson may need arthroscopic surgery on his right throwing shoulder.
The problem here is that this takes the misuse of the original "take the bad with the good" to another level. The original phrase has it that one must take the bad aspects of some single thing along with the good things one wants. I presume that the same holds for the inverted phrase "take the good with the bad." However this New York Times story involves two quite unrelated things, the signing of one player and the need for surgery for another. It wouldn't be the first time a sports journalist, even with a highly regarded (by some) newspaper, used language in a way prescriptivists wouldn't like.

I have a confession to make. As I typed this blog, I found myself writing "take the good with the bad" instead of "take the bad with the good." This is a bit puzzling because I don't commonly do that sort of thing. Why would I do that? As I play with the two expressions in my head, I find that "take the good with the bad" flows more tripplingly off the tounge and sounds better to the ear (if not the brain). Am I nuts? Well, of course I am nuts. But do you share my experience?

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Blogger Chimera said...

This particular expression seems to be one whereby it makes no difference in which order you put the two concepts (bad and good)-- the end meaning is the same -- you cannot separate the bad from the good (or the good from the bad) like egg white and yolk. It's a package deal. A whole egg.

There's a slightly different situation with the twin expressions, "toy boy" and "boy toy." They can both mean the same thing: a younger man engaged in a flirtation/relationship with an older man/woman. But the second one can also mean a girl/woman/boy/man who is an object of flirtation with a young man.

Context is everything.

8:01 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Context is not everything though it is a very big thing. In this case, linguistic context is critical. How the two good-bad sentences should go depends on what precedes. If it is "you have to take..." then "bad" must come first, since we would want not have to take what is good. If it is "you get to take..." then obviously "good" would be first.

There is some sort of election site that has the nonsensical "must take good" construction. Most google provided instances are simple injunctions: "take the good with the bad." What is going on is that the expressions are idiomatic (not really idioms since they are semantically parsable) and people don't think about what they are saying.

6:50 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

This is how I understand the expression "take the good with the bad." Sometimes, in order to have the good, you must take the good ALONG with the bad.

Does that work for you, LG?

9:49 AM

Blogger Mr. Nall said...

Very enjoyable post. It seems 'taking the good with the bad' places more spoken emphasis on the 'good' so suggests forcefully obtaining/finding the 'good' amoungst the 'bad' (even if, semantically, it suggests the opposite!).



11:00 AM

Blogger Chimera said...

"How the two good-bad sentences should go depends on what precedes."

But I was not treating the expression as if it were only a part of an expressed thought. I was looking at it as a whole thought on its own, without anything preceeding it.

And yes, in this day and age, people very often don't think about what they are saying. They frequently glom onto a phrase simply because they like the sound of it, rather than the sense. But I think that's one of the attributes of a living language, no matter where in the world it is spoken.

4:35 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I suspect that there are two ways of parsing the original phrase which is causing the change to the less literally logical variant (pardon my alliteration). Think of conjunctions like and, in phrases like "gin and tonic" or "bacon and eggs." We know that gin and bacon are more important and higher on the scale of being, so they just have to come first.

6:00 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Chimera, I would add to your account the notion that people who don't really understand how to use an expression do think that it is cool and want to emulate cool people talk.

le vent fripon, a fellow student at MIT worked on locutions such as those you reference, such as eye, ear, and nose doctor (older type doctor) in which the face parts are named in descending order, if you think of the order of the "holes." Usually, these idiomatic orders make sense.

8:43 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

susieq, close but no cigar this time. I think Adam james nall may be onto something in his suggestion that speakers are putting their emphasis on "good," a not unreasonable thing to do.

9:07 AM

Blogger basiphobe said...

I say the Facts of Life are to blame for getting the phrase flipped around: "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have the facts of life..."

Now, thanks to your post, I'll be singing that &#@!$ song in my head all day long.

9:44 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...


10:49 AM

Blogger Benjamin Loewen said...

Yes, it does roll off the tongue the wrong way. I'm sorry but sports players say a lot of stupid, cliche things while being interviewed.

I just did a post about some horrible made-up words I can't stand: http://www.becomingsomething.com/2008/10/dumb-madeup-conjunction-that-eats-at-my-soul-each-time-i-hear-it.html

I wouldn't link to it directly but you only allow Google blog comments!!! What's up with that? :-)

11:03 PM

Blogger Micah Neely said...

i think susie is on the right track. with the right emphasis the expression could be flipped and say nearly the same thing. unfortunately, it is obvious from their prosodics that most people who flip it are simply mixing up a set phrase.

1:34 AM

Blogger Nadezhda said...

The Eng-Rus Abby Lingvo translates "to take the bad with the good" as "to take on the challenges of life sturdily". It also gives the expression "to take the rough with the smooth" as it's synonym. From what has been said above, the meaning of the phrase in question is "to take the bad consequences alongside with the good". The two meanings, to my opinion, are quite different.
As far as the expression "to take the good with the bad", the leading Russian search system www.yandex.ru had only one match. It was a story of a girl who traveled to China and got drunk there (no sportsmen here;-)). The heading said "Taking the good with the bad". Judging by the girl's vocabulary, I'd say that she simply didn't know what the original phrase was.
Those are just some of the results of my research.
Anyway, the expression "to take the good with the bad", as well as "to take the bad with the good", is definitely a phraseological unit. And all phraseologisms are born through rethinking the meaning of a certain phrase. Over time, it settles in a language and becomes steady. So, ladies and gentlemen, we might be witnessing the birth of a new phraseologism.

5:51 PM

Blogger baby nies said...

wow..there are a lot of morons here. you know, i majored in math..but the rampant misuse of this particular phrase in about the last decade has to be my biggest pet peeve.
yes..i said MISuse morons. order IS everything in a sentence. "You have to take the good with the bad." ahhh shucks! DO I??? i HAVE to take the GOOD???? that's so flipping hard! i just want the bad! because that is what that sentence is implying. even, "you have to take the good WITH the bad." well..i don't want to. i want the bad only! also what this sentence implies. no matter how you slice it...NOT the meaning we're after, is it??? the ONLY thing that makes ANY sense is the ORIGINAL CORRECT saying "you HAVE to take the BAD with the good" people!!!! that’s the meaning of the sentence... sorry to go all Henry Higgins on you, but it’s about time somebody set the record straight and i’m SO glad this guy brought it up! WOO HOO 

11:27 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

baby nies, you are more fired up than I am about this topic. You are right, although a little loud.

6:38 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

I just found this blog. A friend sent it to me after talking about just this expression. Order does mean everything. The expression means you take the exception to the rule. If "bad" is the rule for you then you would take the good with the bad. I'd rather have good be the rule and therefore take the bad with the good.

Now, what about "eating your cake and having it"?

2:49 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Here's another expression that has been misused so for so long I bet most people think the incorrect one is the original. "Flattery will get nowhere" is the correct expression. "Flattery will get you everywhere" was used by comedians - as a joke - and has practically become the norm.

2:55 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

LG, one of my greatest pet peeves. People do not think about the context before they speak. And... Some will NEVER get your point. Of COURSE one would want the Good with the Bad, so why even say it? The incorrect way of saying it, implies the situation or individual is all Bad and the one considering receiving this "badness" would then have to concede to having to take the Good, which makes no sense. Unless you're from the Addams family or are at the altar of a Santan-worshipper wedding. (I think you get my point.). But many do NOT. They never will, because their minds do not work like yours and mine.

On another misnomer, how many times do you hear people say, "I could've cared less?" When you correct them, "I COULDN'T have cared less," meaning you DO NOT care to the "infinity" degree, they look at you with the deer in the headlight look. �� You explain, "If you COULD HAVE cared less, then why did you say it? It means nothing!" Most users of the misnomer will never get it. And WE are the weirdos. �� Great post! Marie

1:56 PM


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