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Some people bear/tolerate the free riders who refuse to contribute.

What is better word choice and why?

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I'm assuming that you meant "some people"...

When not talking about the animal, bear usually means carry, but it also carries that meaning to lots of metaphorical senses. So, to "bear a characteristic" means to have that characteristic, metaphorical saying you are carrying it. To "bear a load" is to carry a load, and to "bear up" is to support it solidly - and by metaphor, to manage well under that load.

(I'm not sure if the navigational meaning derives from carry or not, but we can ignore that for now, as your question is about the carry sense)

One of those metaphorical meanings is put up with, best understood in the negative possibility "I couldn't bear it", which means "I would be unable to carry the metaphorical (presumably emotional) load of it". This end up as effectively the same meaning as tolerate. Tolerate is a slightly more formal choice. Tolerate is also preferable if there's no modal verb - bear will often be used with the modal can or its relative could. Situations in which it is used without, or with a different modal, are less common.

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The literal meaning of to bear is to carry, which can reasonably easily be extended to focus more specifically on the sustain the heavy load of some burden being carried aspect of that literal sense.

But when we look at the more metaphoric extension of usages such as to bear the burden of guilt, it seems to me these are much more likely to occur in the negative (to be unable to bear such a burden).

And with even more metaphoric usages such as I can't bear the way he looks at me, I'd say these are almost entirely restricted to "negating" contexts...

1: Some people bear the freeriders - NON-IDIOMATIC
2: Some people can't bear the freeriders - Unlikely, but not "unnatural"
3: Some people won't bear the freeriders - NON-IDIOMATIC
4: Some people tolerate the freeriders - TOTALLY NATURAL ENGLISH
5: Some people can't tolerate the freeriders - Unlikely, but not "unnatural"
6: Some people won't tolerate the freeriders - TOTALLY NATURAL ENGLISH
7: Some people won't put up with the freeriders - TOTALLY NATURAL ENGLISH

Note that the article in the freeriders is totally optional, and would often be omitted - unless the context is very specifically about some particular set of "freeriders", but even there we'd have to consider whether "some people" are objecting to just those freeriders, or to "freeriders in general".

  • You don't appear to have considered non-negated modals... "Some people can bear the freeriders" - only unnatural/unlikely if the sentence ends there (as is "can't bear") - if it continues with a verb, it becomes natural: "some people can bear the freeriders taking handouts from..." Basically, that sense is natural and can be idiomatic as long as there's a suitable modal verb along with it. I think. – SamBC Feb 27 at 15:02
  • @SamBC: I thought it was already clear from the examples I gave, and the accompanying "explanation", that Some people can bear the freeriders (or other auxiliaries such as will / do bear) also wouldn't be idiomatic. The important point is that negation makes a big difference. If you think otherwise, maybe I'll try to think of some relevant search terms for Google Books to back up my position. – FumbleFingers Feb 27 at 15:07
  • It makes a big difference - but I was pointing out that it's less of a difference if the sentence doesn't end at 'freeriders'. Also if other nouns replace 'freeriders'. "I can bear the pain" is, I believe, not so unusual (also apparently a song title, but there you go). My point is that negation isn't all there is to it in the examples you give. "Bear the burden of guilt" I've definitely come across plenty in the third person without any modal, by the by. – SamBC Feb 27 at 15:13
  • I specifically cited the non-negated example bear the [burden of] guilt as "intermediate" to the more extremely metaphorical sense of to bear = tolerate / put up with. In the case of I can bear the pain I'd say there are effectively two different possible "nuances" - It is acceptable to me that there should be this level of pain, or I am able to withstand this level of pain. But I'm sure that whichever precise sense might be intended, they'll both be far less common than negated I can't bear the pain, even though in practice I'm probably already "bearing" it. – FumbleFingers Feb 27 at 15:34
  • (But almost certainly not tolerating it without complaint! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 27 at 15:35

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