The verbs "to bring" and "to take" are often interchangeable in English, but their French equivalents are much more specific, and knowing when to use them can be a bit tricky. French actually has four different translations of these two simple verbs: amener, emmener, apporter, and emporter.
You can see that each of these verbs begins with a- or em- and ends with mener or porter. Keeping that in mind will help you determine when to use which verb. You can break it down like this:
1. The verbs ending in mener are only used for things that can move (namely people, animals, or vehicles). The verbs ending in porter are only used for inanimate objects. Mener means "to lead" and porter means "to carry"—you’re more likely to "lead" people and animals and "carry" inanimate objects.
2. The verbs beginning with a- refer to bringing something or someone to another place or another person (emphasis on the arrival or destination; remember that à means "to" in French). The verbs beginning with em- refer to taking something or someone with you, away from the original location (emphasis on the departure or the journey).
The first rule is pretty straightforward, but context is key for the second one. Let’s explore them both by looking at these two examples:
Ils avaient emmené avec eux quelques animaux d’élevage
They had brought with them a few farm animals
Ils avaient emporté des tonnes de conserves?
Did they bring tons of canned food?
Farm animals are living, breathing creatures, and canned food is just about as inanimate as you can get, so it makes sense that emmené was used in the first sentence and emporté was used in the second. But why the em-verbs instead of the a-verbs? The words avec eux help us to see where the emphasis lies—not on where they brought the animals and food, but on the fact that they brought things with them.
Now let’s take a look at amener and apporter:
Aujourd’hui notre rendez-vous nous amène dans l’est de Paris
Today our rendezvous brings us to the east of Paris
Cap. 1, Voyage dans Paris: Belleville
Vous voulez que je vous apporte une paire pour que vous puissiez comparer?
Do you want me to bring you a pair so that you can compare?
Our rendezvous with tour guide Daniel Benchimol is "bringing" us to the east of Paris, so amener is used here, since we’re all animate human beings. On the other hand, Manon brings Margaux a pair of inanimate shoes to try on, so she uses apporter. In both cases, the emphasis is on where we and the shoes are being brought—to the east of Paris and to Margaux.
As a final example, let's see how one situation can call for both types of verbs. We already saw that apporter was the right verb to use when Manon asked Margaux if she wanted her to bring her a pair of shoes to try on. But if the shoes don't fit, Margaux could say to Manon:
Emportez-les, elles sont trop petites.
Take them away, they're too small.
She wants Manon to bring the shoes back with her (not necessarily to any particular place), so emporter is the right fit here.
This is a lot to take in, so you might need some time to chew it over. In fact, why not go to a restaurant and review it all over a nice meal? If you decide to amener un ami (bring a friend) you'll want to have it sur place (to stay); if you're alone you might want to take it à emporter (to go)!