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I've heard colleagues in my office say things like "I want you to hold the pen on this" or "I'll hold the pen on this".

My sense is that it means being the primary person responsible. I wanted to know if this is a common English language phrase and if it means what I think it means. I have googled this but was unable to find anything on it.

Well, I'm in the Singapore office of an American company. The folks I've heard this from are Indian, Malay, and Scottish. Some googling told me that the State Department uses this phrase to mean that while you may be writing something, the intellectual property and the views belong to the state department. By holding the pen, you're merely a drafter. This is quite a different meaning from the one the folks in my unit seem to use it in.

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    What country is this? The phrase is unfamiliar to me, in the US. – Hot Licks Sep 15 '17 at 3:34
  • Well, I'm in the Singapore office of an American company. The folks I've heard this from are Indian, Malay, and Scottish. Some googling told me that the State Department uses this phrase to mean that while you may be writing something, the intellectual property and the views belong to the state department. By holding the pen, you're merely a drafter. This is quite a different meaning from the one the folks in my unit seem to use it in. – Amatya Sep 15 '17 at 3:43
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    My googling also suggests that it means "take responsibility" – NVZ Sep 15 '17 at 6:14
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This saying comes from the following quote: “When writing the story of your life, don't let anyone else hold the pen.”

What the quote says is pretty simple. All through our lives, we have been influenced by people, society, books, TV, family and so on. We let others have a lot to say. What the quote is saying is that no matter what, we shouldn’t trust someone else to take decisions about your life, because the moment you let that happen, it becomes their decision; but even though they might want the best for you, they don’t know you as much as you know yourself. It’s your life, so why would you let someone else decide what’s best for you?

So in the sentence you heard: "I want you to hold the pen on this", I take it that what they are saying is that you should be responsible for this matter or subject, without letting anyone influence or advice you, as you well sensed.

I hope this helps you.

  • Welcome to ELU, and great first answer! I've made a slight improvement, giving a link to show that the quote you've suggested does indeed exist. On ELU, wherever possible, it is good to use references to back up your answers, otherwise they just become your opinion rather than a statement of fact (which is what we're aiming for here). – AndyT Sep 15 '17 at 8:28
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I work in the UK civil service and this is a common phrase - meaning you are responsible for the content and drafting but are likely to be commissioning content from others.

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I understand this phrase to come from insurance broking. "Underwriting" is another terms that comes from this industry. An insurance broker firm may be authorised by an insurance firm to enter into insurance contracts falling within pre-agreed parameters on behalf of the insurance firm. Back in the day, this would have involved signing the contract on the behalf of the insurance company.

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