Hold or keep?
paper work

Jana from the Czech Republic writes:

Can you please explain to me the different uses of keep and hold?

I know there are some phrases where I must use keep and some where I must use hold but sometimes I don't know which one I should use.

Roger Woodham replies:

Hold or keep

We use the verbs hold and keep in many different ways and with many different meanings. Only when the meaning is to prevent something from moving can they be used interchangeably:

  • Hold / keep the ruler steady so that I can draw a straight line.
  • Keep / hold still while I put this necklace on you.
  • Her talk was so boring that she was unable to hold / keep my attention.
  • This is a firm arrangement which cannot be changed. I'll hold / keep you to this.

We also keep or hold data and records:

  • He kept / held all his data on a hard disk.
  • For tax purposes, you do not need to hold / keep financial records for more than five years.

But you can only hold records in sport, etc, you do not keep them:

  • John Lees from the UK holds the record for the fastest walk across America - 2628 km in 53 days 12 hours 15 minutes between 11 April (the eleventh of April) and 3 June (the third of June).

hold on to = keep

You can see from the above example that one of the slight differences in meaning is that hold sometimes suggests something temporary while keep may suggest something more permanent. There is a similar distinction between hold on to and keep, meaning not to lose:

  • Can you hold on to these CDs for me while I'm away?
  • Hold on to the instructions so that you know what to do if something goes wrong.
  • Keep the instructions safely somewhere in case something goes wrong.



Hold somebody up = keep

The phrasal verb hold somebody up, meaning delay, can also be used as an alternative to keep with this meaning:

  • I don't want to hold you up / keep you, but could I just have a word?

hold = carry / put arms around / contain / organise event

When hold means to carry, or to put ones arms around or to contain or to organise an event, we cannot substitute keep in its place:

  • Can you hold my books for me while I look for my mobile phone?
  • He held her tightly and hoped that she would stop crying soon.
  • Old Trafford, the home of Man U, holds 67,000 spectators while Highbury, the home of their main rivals, Arsenal, holds only half that amount.
  • I plan to hold a meeting soon to see if we can increase profitability.
  • Referendums have been held in all central European countries in connection with EU membership.

Keep = continue / store / stay in good condition

When keep means any of these, we cannot substitute hold in its place. When keep means continue, note that it may be followed either by verb-ing or by the preposition on + verb-ing:

  • Don't turn left or right, just keep right on till the end of the road.
  • You must keep taking the medication until you are quite better.
  • I kept (on) reminding him that he should take my advice, but he ignored me.
  • Where do you keep the keys to the shed? I can't find them.
  • Let's buy two kilos of peaches now. They'll keep in the fridge for about two weeks
  • If you want to keep fit, eat plenty of fruit!

We also keep secrets and promises and you keep your word. You do not hold them:

  • Can you keep a secret? Jane's going to have a baby.
  • He failed to keep his promise / his word and told everybody about it.

If you would like more practice more please visit our in the You, Me and Us part of our website.