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Every dictionary I've found says that 連れていく{つれていく} should only be used to mean leading someone of a lower social status. While my research and experience has found this to be true in most cases, I've found a few sentences that seem to break this rule, particularly someone bringing their parents to either a vacation or the hospital. For example:

両親を旅行に連れていく
親を病院に連れていく

My theory is that it actually applies to anyone of a lower social status or anyone in your social circle- someone that you're familiar with. But I can't figure it out, because it's actually kind of hard to find any examples of bringing anyone of a higher social status, like your boss, somewhere.

Is it correct to say that this verb can only be used to bring those of a lower social status? If it is, why are the above examples correct?

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As far as honorific speech is concerned, your own parents are not any higher than yourself in status. You treat them as your equals when speaking to a third party. If you have been taught otherwise somewhere, it is indeed unfortunate. That is why you must say 「[親]{おや}を~~に[連]{つ}れていく」, instead of saying it using a "better" verb that will be introduced below.

If, however, you are taking another person's parents (outside of your family), your teacher, your customer, etc. to a place, then you will use 「~~を~~にお連れする」. Using 「連れていく」 in these cases will make one a very poor keigo-user (and in the business world, you will be called out).

Point is it does not matter how much you personally respect and admire your parents. That is your business and it is cool. You just do not elevate them as objects of respect when speaking to a third party about them in keigo. This is extremely important and is surely a weak point for many Japanese-learners.

「[両親]{りょうしん}を[旅行]{りょこう}に連れていく」

「親を[病院]{びょういん}に連れていく」

Both phrases above are perfect (because the speakers are not elevating their parents in status).

Again, you should never, ever replace 「連れていく」 by 「お連れする」 in the phrases above. That would be "trying to" speak politely and failing miserably. "Comical" is how that would sound to native speakers.

「連れていく」 is for people lower or equal in status, not just lower as you stated. Your family members are your equals in the keigo world.

「お連れする」 is for people higher in status. In reality, however, the politer speakers use it even when talking about taking a stranger somewhere if the stranger is not way younger than themselves. But they sure will not use it for their parents or grand-parents because they know they should not.

  • Ah, yeah, I think I misinterpreted what another native speaker said on a different question (or maybe he misinterpreted me), which is what led to this question. Thanks! – Blavius Jun 27 '15 at 1:47
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This is a really good question and I think your theory is correct. Let me explain with three scenarios.
Situation: You are in the office and Yamamoto-san comes to the office to meet your colleague.

  • Yamamoto-san belongs to another company / or customer
    「今から山本様をお連れします / ご案内します」
  • In the company, Yamamoto-san is in lower-position than your colleague AND in the same position as you / or lower position than you
    「今から山本を連れていきます」
  • In the company, Yamamoto-san is in the same position as your colleague or in lower position, but higher than your position
    「今から山本さんをお連れいたします」

In the first example, you are bringing someone in the higher position than you, and you are talking to your boss, 「連れて行きます」 is not the best expression. Actually, 「ご案内します」is the best here.
In the second example, you are bringing someone in the lower position than you, 「連れて行きます」 is OK as stated in your first theory.
In the third example, since Yamamoto-san is in higher position than you, honorific expression (〜いたします) is used.

Turning to your second part of theory, let's see other examples:

  • If you are talking to your friends (or someone in the same position)
    「こないだの休みに両親を旅行に連れていったよ」
  • If you are talking to your boss (or someone in the higher position)
    「こないだの休みに両親を旅行に連れていきました」
    Here, 「連れて行く」 is still used since you are talking about someone you're familiar with, but since you are talking to your boss, honorific expression is used.
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This is my personal opinion after living in Japan for a year.

The word 連れる literally means "to lead" or "to take (a person) somewhere". The emphasis here being "to lead" which indicates that you are in charge of where you're going as opposed to showing some one the way or chauffeuring them there.

The form 「連れて行く」signifies that you are going along and leading them.

If you are of a lower social standing then it sounds odd that you should "lead" or be in charge over some one of higher social status. However within the group of your friends (or family, or co-workers) where you share equal social standing it is okay to be in charge and lead someone when you're going somewhere. Or at least this is how I see it.

  • A person of higher social status might say 案内してくれました instead of 連れていってくれました when being "lead" by someone of lower social status. – Earthliŋ Jun 26 '15 at 19:14

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