The Grammarphobia Blog

A purpose-driven question

Q: A recent New York Times article said Al Gore “had purposefully stayed on the sidelines during the long Democratic primary fight.” It seems to me that the Times should have said “purposely,” which to me means on purpose, instead of “purposefully,” which I see as with a purpose. Is this an example of the corrosion/evolution of meaning? Or is the article just wrong?

A: I usually use “purposely” to mean deliberately and “purposefully” to mean with a purpose, which is pretty much the way you see them.

That’s more or less the traditional way the two words have been used since “purposely” entered English in 1495 and “purposefully” showed up in 1854, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But entries for the two words in modern American dictionaries overlap quite a bit: “purposely” can mean with a purpose, and “purposefully” can mean deliberately. In fact, I even see some overlap in my unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) from the 1950s.

Yes, this is an example of the evolution of English. Is it for the worse? I’d say so, since it makes the language fuzzier. But I have just one vote in this. All the people who speak the language ultimately decide what’s good English and bad.

Was the article in the Times wrong? That depends. Did the writer mean that Gore stayed on the sidelines with a purpose (say to maintain party unity) or that he did it deliberately (that is, intentionally, rather than indecisively)?

I guess you’d have to ask the former Vice President for an answer.

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