What Does “to bring to bear” Mean?

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This is a guest post by Julie Link. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
The Indianapolis Star recently reported that Bristol Palin “is bringing her experience as a teen mom to bear on the small screen” (February 24, page A11, no author cited). The phrase caused me to wince, so I did a quick search on the usage of  “bring to bear.”
The first definitions I collected confirmed my intuition that the phrase was misused. ThesaurusReference.com defines the term as “have to do with” and lists as synonyms, among other terms, “apply,” “draw a parallel to,” and “relate to.” AudioEnglish.net is more specific, offering the definition “bring into operation or effect.”
I was puzzled. What does Ms. Palin’s motherhood have to do with the small screen? How does it bring into operation the TV show she will participate in? Surely the power of her mother’s notoriety does not extend that far!
Further clicking on the web uncovered this definition from TheFreeDictionary.com: “to put to good use.” Ah—exoneration of the writer! If sharing Bristol’s life as a teen mom can encourage other teens to think carefully before putting themselves at risk of an unplanned pregnancy, perhaps she is indeed bringing her experience to bear. Hats off to her!
But the phrase still displeased my ear. The problem is the ambiguous word “on.” The first definition of “bring to bear” includes “on” as a tacit piece of the verb and is, therefore, a transitive verb requiring a direct object: “The president of the board brought the dismal sales figures to bear on the new budget.” The sales figures were related to the new budget; they played a role in bringing the new budget into operation.
The second definition, “to put to good use,” is intransitive: “All the skater’s skills were brought to bear in her attempt to win the gold medal.” So the question is, in the Star report, is the word “on” part of the verb “bring to bear” with “the small screen” as the direct object or is it a preposition having at its object “the small screen”?
With a heart of goodwill, I will assume the writer used the phrase in the intransitive sense and will join him in hoping that Ms. Palin’s experience will be put to good use. I maintain, however, that all writing should be precise and unambiguous and I bring to bear William Safire’s exhortation that writing should always please the ear.
Julie Link is an experienced editor and avid lexiphile who loves reading and writing about language and grammar.

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3 thoughts on “What Does “to bring to bear” Mean?”

  1. I’ll opine that the Indianapolis Star’s usage is fine. A very common use of “brig to bear” since Spanish Armada days is to steer one’s ship or otherwise make adjustments such that the ships guns “point at” or “bear” on the enemy.

    So for Ms. Palin to bring her experience to bear on television makes sense .. she obviously wants to share her experiences with the largest audience of teen mothers and potential teen mothers through the medium the majority pay attention to … television.

  2. We try to avoid idioms (including this one) in professional writing. We also try to be concise. Thus:

    “bring to bear” >> “apply”

    Interesting post. Thanks, Julie.

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