The Grammarphobia Blog

Is broccoli “healthy” or “healthful”?

Q: I’ve always believed that foods are healthful and people are healthy, but nobody seems to observe that distinction nowadays. What do you think?

A: Technically, foods (or life styles or whatever) are considered “healthful,” while people are said to be “healthy.” But literal meanings are one thing and common practice is another. It’s become almost universal for people to refer to “healthy food,” even though a literal-minded person might imagine a stalk of broccoli lifting weights!

Interestingly, the distinction between “healthy” and “healthful” is relatively recent, dating back to the late 19th century, according to a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Before that, the two words were used interchangeably. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back to the 16th century in which both “healthy” and “healthful” are used to mean “enjoying good health” as well as “conducive to good health.”