Lesson #137 (Part 1): Understanding The Differences Between ‘Borrow’ And ‘Lend’ (Through Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’)

As mentioned in our Mini-Lesson Monday this week, I would like to address some common mistakes that I sometimes see English language students making.

One mistake I encountered in a few places was a tendency to mix up the verbs ‘lend’ and ‘borrow’. I met even advanced English speakers who tripped up on these two words.  There are many ways we can use these words, using them not only for their literal meaning but also within certain fixed phrases.  

So for today’s lesson I will highlight examples of these words in context, as taken from Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887). Set in an English village, it is a beautiful story of a simple woodcutter, Giles Winterborne, who is loyally attached to a stylish young woman, Grace Melbury, whom he has known since childhood. In the course of the narrative, he borrows small things to help improve his home and impress Grace and her family. It isn’t long however before the tide turns: the Melbury family undergo a trial and Winterbourne lends them his assistance in a way they were not prepared for.

✍️ ‘to lend’:

To recap, this verb means to allow someone to take or receive something from another person for a while. Oftentimes, lending involves doing something for free; so you may rent a studio apartment (pay for the right to use it) but you lend something to a friend or at least someone you trust. 

Sometimes banks and credit unions will lend money to a customer under certain conditions, and for a relatively small interest fee. Sometimes you might lend a friend the use of a coat or a scarf if they need it – both of you understanding full well who the owner rightfully is, since the thing lent is not a gift.

Where I live, there are even times when I might lend a neighbour some milk, vegetables or sugar; in such cases ‘lending’ has the sense of giving something away completely that perhaps later I might be given a substitute for (e.g. vegetables to replace the ones I have given away). 📝 This particular use enforces the informal meaning that ‘lending’ often carries, but remember that lending, whether professional or personal, is mostly based on trust. 

In the following poetic quotation, Hardy personifies daybreak as lending ‘that aspect of mesmeric fixity’ to a village farm at dawn.

📘 ‘The tree-trunks, the road, the out-buildings, the garden, every object wore that aspect of mesmeric fixity which the suspensive quietude of daybreak lends to such scenes.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887) 

✍️ Hardy also touches on another use of ‘lend’: ‘to lend assistance’, meaning to give someone assistance or help, to ‘give someone a hand’ as the English expression puts it. Here is Giles Winterborne, ever helpful towards others even when he himself is so busy:

📘 ‘Winterborne was in the apple and cider trade, and his requirements in cartage and other work came in the autumn of each year. Hence horses, wagons, and in some degree men, were handed over to him when the apples began to fall; he, in return, lending his assistance to Melbury in the busiest wood-cutting season, as now.’

– Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887)  

Winterborne is a dependable man; halfway through the story, after many disappointments, he continues to help Grace Melbury’s family with their work:

📘 ‘The postman’s time for passing was just after Melbury’s men had assembled in the spar-house; and Winterborne, who when not busy on his own account would lend assistance there, used to go out into the lane every morning and meet the post-man at the end of one of the green rides through the hazel copse, in the straight stretch of which his laden figure could be seen a long way off.’

📝 This enforces another connotation of ‘lending assistance’: that of making yourself available to another person willingly, being generous with your help or time, maybe even taking the initiative in helping another person. To ‘lend someone assistance‘ (as the common phrase is) is to do more than just help someone else, it is to ‘shoulder’ someone else’s work alongside them.

I have tried to find synonyms of ‘lend’, but while all the following verbs do reflect some of its meaning, ‘to lend’ has a very distinctive meaning that encompasses everything I have explained above. 📝 Possible synonyms might be: accommodate, contribute, extend, grant, impart, confer, entrust, oblige, bestow, provide, supply.

👉 Join me in the next post for part 2 of this lesson, where we will examine the multiple meanings of ‘to borrow’.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)