I have a question about the usage of the verb "carry". On the web, I found usages of "verb" like this:

  1. He is disappointed that the women seem unable to carry a conversation.

But dictionaries suggest that the correct usage involves the phrase "carry on":

  1. He is disappointed that the women seem unable to carry on a conversation.

Is the usage in sentence 1 wrong, or is the usage in sentence 1 another standard English usage not recorded in dictionaries?

  • Without more context...It would be understood to be the same. Internet is often informal in the use of grammar. Feb 21, 2016 at 18:32
  • 1
    In short, 1 is wrong, 2 is right. You'll not hear or see English speakers use the form in 1 unless they are mistaken. Feb 21, 2016 at 18:37
  • I agree with @HostileFork. I was going to make the same point.
    – BobRodes
    Feb 21, 2016 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


(Note: Converting my comment to an answer after the edit)

There is a sense in which "carry" can point out someone who really does the main work (in this sense you might say that a sports player who is very good "carried his team to victory").

So in a conversation among multiple people--you might be pointing out certain individuals as the "they" who "carried a conversation". Without these people, it would have been silence otherwise. Perhaps everyone else would have "let it drop"--because they are bad conversationalists or didn't like each other enough to talk. :-)

He is disappointed that the women seem unable to carry a conversation.

What this might be saying is that he is disappointed that these women can't be good conversation leaders. They aren't able to ensure a good conversation goes on--no matter how bad the other people involved are at talking.

He is disappointed that the women seem unable to carry on a conversation.

Here they're not leaders, and moreover they're bad at participating at all. They aren't being asked to carry the whole conversation, merely to continue it a bit at a time...to carry on from the thing the last person said.

It's not a typical distinction--because we don't usually treat conversation as a competitive team sport, and talk about who "carried" it and who "dropped the ball". If you're not playing judge of how well people are doing at the conversation game, and just talking about what happened, then carry on is the right plain description for when "those people were talking".

Also: to single out someone and say they "carried on about something" would mean that they talked about it for a long time...generally too long. But when people "carry on" a conversation among themselves--without saying just one person "carried on"--it just means that the conversation kept going.

  • So, "carry" in my original question, is similar to the meaning of "carry" in "carry a task to completion"? But is it non-standard, since some forum members think sentence 1 is unusual?
    – meatie
    Feb 21, 2016 at 20:20
  • @meatie Similar...but "carrying a task" is something one could reasonably do on one's own. You might say a football team "carried themselves to victory", but it's much easier to just say "they won". Using the "carry" form in something involving multiple people--like team sports or a conversation--is generally reserved for pointing out someone/something that was most responsible. It's as if others couldn't walk somewhere, so someone had to physically "carry" them. The weird bit here is just applying it to conversation--where taking too much control is generally looked at as bad vs. good. Feb 21, 2016 at 20:27
  • So, " carry a conversation" is non-standard after all?
    – meatie
    Feb 22, 2016 at 0:34
  • @meatie Imagine if someone was the leader of a discussion group, and usually they were the one to facilitate it. But on a certain day, they are not feeling well and the pressure is too much for them...and they fall silent. Everyone is confused and doesn't know what to do. The facilitator might turn to you and say "I need you to carry this conversation"...so facilitating has shifted to you. This would not be very common, but it would be fully understood if that was what was intended. So it is "standard" in that sense, though most would probably find another way to say the same thing. Feb 22, 2016 at 1:14

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