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I'm having a difficult time choosing between "take + responsibility", or "take on + responsibility". Please see the following sentences(written by Chinese learners of English):

  1. DINK couples refuse to play the role of parents and (take /take on) the responsibilities to cultivate offspring.
  2. Mother is getting old, but I haven't (taken/taken on) the responsibility for supporting her.
  3. She is ready to (take/take on) the responsibility of a wife bravely. (Note: Her husband is seriously ill in the hospital. )

Qestions: 1. Which is the right expression to use in each context: “take” or “take on”? 2. If one of them is correct, then why? 3. If both are correct, then any differences in meaning between “take” and “take on”?

Many thanks in advance!

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2 Answers 2

The general difference between "taking" and "taking on" responsibilities in these three cases is:

when you take responsibility for something, it generally means that you accept responsibility and act in an appropriate way by, for example, doing your job (as a parent or a student or a teacher or a banker) as well as you can and don't rely on others to do your work for you.

But

when you take on responsibility for something, it generally means that you assume new responsibility for something you aren't or weren't expected to be responsible for.

There are other ways to use these terms, but all these sentences are about personal and familial responsibilities, not about social or political responsibilities.

"DINK couples refuse to play the role of parents and (take / take on) the responsibilities to cultivate offspring."

DINK couple: "a couple with two incomes and no children". They don't have children, so I'd use take on the responsibilities (because they don't want to have them).

"Mother is getting old, but I haven't (taken/taken on) the responsibility for supporting her."

This is complicated because it's a Chinese cultural problem. If you're the eldest son, then your mother is your responsibility and you must take it (accept it) or violate cultural norms. If you're not the eldest, then you're talking about not assuming (taking on) someone else's responsibilities for your mother. In my wife's family, all six daughters (no sons) contribute equally to the support of their parents, so each has taken on a certain amount of responsibility even though she doesn't necessarily have to, and the eldest daughter cannot afford to support them on her own.

"She is ready to (take/take on) the responsibility of a wife bravely. (Note: Her husband is seriously ill in the hospital.)"

This depends on whether she's a new wife or a veteran wife of this husband. If the marriage is new and the illness is new, then I'd use take on because those kinds of responsibilities are unexpected for new marriages. If, as in my case when my late wife needed someone to be her daily caregiver during the last nine months of her life (she had cancer), after eleven years of marriage, I would use take the responsibility of a dutiful and loving husband. It's part of the marriage vows, but even though almost no one is prepared for such a thing, it seemed to me the only thing to do even though I could have afforded to pay someone else to do it. Had I paid someone else, I would have been shirking my responsibilities, but by accepting them, I wasn't adding anything unexpected to my responsibilities.

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Hi, Bill Franke,I cannot find the right words to say,except that I am really sorry for your loss and do hope you are feeling better now... Thanks a lot for your help. So now I see that the difference lies in whether the responsibility is unexpected or rightfully the person's. I think this explains why "take on" is often found in the company of words such as "new" and "start". –  hongyan Dec 4 '12 at 9:30
    
Thank you for your condolences, Hongyan. It was a long time ago. I used it as the best real-life example I know of to illustrate what I mean by accepting one's responsibilities, and to distinguish what I see as the responsibilities of a veteran spouse and a brand new spouse, for no other reason. Lots of husbands and wives have the same experience and the same feelings of responsibility. I'm not special. –  user21497 Dec 4 '12 at 10:05
    
I understand, Bill Franke. Your illustration is very clear and helpful. Many thanks! –  hongyan Dec 4 '12 at 11:16
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"Take on" means to rise to the challenge of something, or become something As in, "I would take on the government if I had the chance," or "Taking on the responsibility of raising a child."

"Take" just means to obtain something in some way. As in, "I can take your toys away," or "I would like to take you out to dinner."

All of the statements would use "take on" (or "taken on," in Number 2), as you cannot physically "take" a responsibility. Most likely, "take on" will precede the word "responsibility." This is because, by taking on the responsibility, you are rising to the challenge of that responsibility.

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Hi Cole, thanks for your reply. I have seen many instances of "take on + responsibility" used in the sense as you pointed out. Yet, "take + responsibility" also seems to be quite frequent, as cited in an English corpus "Ten to 17-year-olds are taught to take responsibility for themselves" –  hongyan Dec 4 '12 at 7:29
    
Welcome to EL&U. It's customary here to provide support for your answers; typically by citing a reputable dictionary entry. I agree with @hongyan that take responsibility is an acceptable usage. Your answer should point out when each is used rather than that one should not be used. –  Jim Dec 4 '12 at 8:26
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