The expression "to take liberties with something" are defined by different dictionaries as follows:

to make important and unreasonable changes to something, especially a book (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

to make unreasonable changes in something such as a piece of writing (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)

to change something, especially a piece of writing, in a way that people disagree with (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

I wonder if the expression is always disapproving. I mean if someone, for example, says that Kurosawa took liberties with Shakespeare's Macbeth, are they actually disapproving of Kurosawa's action? Can't we use it when we are approving of his audacious adaptation? For example,

Akira Kurosawa was audacious enough to take liberties with Shakespeare's Macbeth and set the story in feudal Japan.

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    Why not just believe the dictionaries? How does your sentence re Joyce change anything?
    – Lambie
    Nov 6, 2021 at 16:30
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    Oxford Dictionaries gives these definitions of take liberties - (1) behave in an unduly familiar manner towards a person. "you've taken too many liberties with me" (2) treat something freely, without strict faithfulness to the facts or to an original. "the scriptwriter has taken few liberties with the original narrative". I wouldn't say that definition (2) was always disapproving. Nov 6, 2021 at 16:46
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    At the risk of a red herring, I’m reminded of the similar usage “take the liberty of [doing something].” I used this just the other day: “I’ve taken the liberty of editing the tags on your question.” This usage almost always assumes that such liberties are welcome, or at least tolerated. Nov 6, 2021 at 16:53
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    @AndyBonner That's an interesting counterpoint. It seems to me that who is describing the taking of a liberty (or liberties) strongly correlates with whether it's permissible or not.
    – user888379
    Nov 6, 2021 at 17:00
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    It's fair to say it's usually disapproving. It also seems that some people don't use it in a disapproving way. So how does that help you? Are you trying to understand a passage, or wondering about using the idiom in your own writing? You could ask "Do people always pay when they take things in a shop?" but that wouldn't help you work out if you should take things without paying.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 7, 2021 at 0:18

3 Answers 3


English speakers have two similar-sounding idioms at their disposal in describing situations such as Kurosawa's revision of Macbeth: "take liberties " and "take the liberty of." Evidently, the implicit level of disapproval is much higher in the former idiom than in the latter. Here are the entries for both expressions in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

take liberties 1. Behave improperly or disrespectfully; also, make unwanted sexual advances. For example, He doesn't allow staff members to take liberties, such as calling clients by their first names, or She decided that if Jack tried to take liberties with her she would go straight home. This idiom uses liberties in the sense of "an overstepping of propriety," and thus differ markedly from TAKE THE LIBERTY OF. 2. Make a statement or take an action not warranted by the facts or circumstances, as in Their book takes liberties with the historical record.

take the liberty of Act on one's own authority without permission from another, as in I took the liberty of forwarding the mail to his summer address. It is also put as take the liberty to, as in He took the liberty to address the Governor by her first name. This rather formal locution was first recorded in 1625 and does not imply the opprobrium of the similar-sounding TAKE LIBERTIES.

It might be more accurate to say that "take the liberty of [or to]" less often implies opprobrium than "take liberties" does. Certainly there is very little distance between Ammer's examples He doesn't allow staff members to take liberties, such as calling clients by their first names and He took the liberty to address the Governor by her first name (as Ammer was undoubtedly aware).

But it seems to me that, on the other hand, one might say, with equal absence of opprobrium, "Kurosawa was audacious enough to take liberties with Shakespeare's Macbeth and set the story in feudal Japan" and "Kurosawa was audacious enough to take the liberty of altering elements of Shakespeare's Macbeth and setting it in feudal Japan." In my view, although disapproval is an extremely common implication of the wording "take liberties," it it isn't an inevitable one.

Consider this excerpt from Glenn Phillips, ‎Philipp Kaiser & ‎Doris Chon, Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions (2018):

DC: He exhibited La Nona Ora in this new context.

AR: The same piece, but he showed it in a very specific way. At the time, the Arsenale was not in good shape. There were some oily machines and abandoned oil barrels, which gave off a bad smell. And Cattelan's installation was in the middle of that. It was so impressive. No red carpet in an empty room, just the figure of the fallen pope installed in this abandoned, forgotten place. This was very, very interesting. I think Harald's second Biennale, in 2001, was better than in 1999. He was much freer, and he took liberties with the space because he was familiar with it; he had learned how to improve it.

And from the Translator's Preface to a 1999 translation of Oedipus at Colonus:

What am I saying? That I took liberties freely in the hope that I could translate some of the meaning for a reader in our curious culture where the existence of the word itself is often sorely threatened. That I obviously took liberties with the text while, at the same time, trying my best, as someone stuck in the late twentieth century, to be faithful to the original. Most likely more freedom, the liberty and license of adaptation would have served me and the great original (which, in any case, cannot be injured or improved by me or anyone else) better. Bu the game was not free and easy adaptation. It was, rather, somewhere in the vaguely defined precincts of translation.

And from Phil Vettel, Good Eating's Fine Dining in Chicago (2013):

When dishes arrive, a captain provides historic background, explaining, for instance, how the sole Daumont is actually a pastiche of Escoffier presentations, or how the kitchen took liberties with its sauternes sorbet, freezing the dessert wine in liquid nitrogen to eliminate the need for added sugar or thickeners, and so that, as it melts in the dish, the sorbet returns to its original state—a glass of wine.

In none of these three instances does the wording "took liberties with" indicate condemnation by the speaker or writer of the conduct thus described; rather, it acknowledges that the conduct breaks with precedent or expectation, or strict adherence to formal rules, while leaving open the possibility that the action was justified and perhaps even, on balance, beneficial.

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    What some consider the greatest Western ever filmed took great liberties with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Jan 25, 2022 at 14:30
  • It is debatable whether the examples in which take liberties with is used in the context that are overall laudatory prove that the phase is not always disapproving. They can be analysed by taking it to be disapproving in itself, but capable of being used in the contexts in which that disapproval is outweighed by other considerations. One may, for example, think that Kurosawa's work could be disapproved in so far as faithfulness to Shakespeare is important (and express that by took liberties), but still approve of it on the whole, because of its other qualities.
    – jsw29
    Jan 25, 2022 at 17:18
  • @jsw29 'Feel free to take liberties with the steps—I've outlined how we approached it, but there are many twists on this that would be worthy of exploration, or help it meet the needs of differing age groups: ...' [Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic; Storytelling Community] Jan 25, 2022 at 17:41

"To take a liberty" is an expression of opinion. You do not say it unless you disapprove. One man's "liberty" is another man's masterpiece.

You have answered your own question by quoting

to change something, especially a piece of writing1, in a way that people disagree with (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.)

To take a liberty is thus only negative. However, you are at liberty in your opinion of what is a liberty.

1although I am surprised at especially a piece of writing - you can take liberties with someone's wife, etc. Google Ngrams is useful for this: took liberties with the *


A 'Liberty', in the Middle Ages, referred to an institution or area registered as such whereby it could operate without the embrace of the usual restrictions and rights reserved for the King after devolving into private hands such as an Archbishop or Lord. This device was often used by parishes or a collection of properties under one Lord, a 'tenure' (Also, see 'Fiefdom'.) Examples include St. Albans, Peterborough and Salisbury (where an original copy of the Magna Carta, dealing with such rights resides).The The Local Goverment Act of 1888 put an end to this age-old feudal unit, or 'took liberties' or such rights away. Examples include St. Alban's, Peterborough, Salisbury etc.

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    – Community Bot
    Mar 2 at 15:07
  • Interesting, but 'take liberties with' involves 'overstepping the mark', 'going beyond normal propriety', not 'taking away ancient rights by rewriting the statutory requirements'. Libertinism, not proscription. Mar 2 at 15:39

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