Q: I thought I understood the usage of “make do,” but I’ve seen “make due” twice now – the second time in the Wall Street Journal. Is this some new application of the phrase?
A: You’re right! This sentence appears in the March 5, 2009, Wall Street Journal: “Families typically have been able to make due as long as they remained employed and on a company health plan.”
This is a misuse. The correct phrase is “make do.” It means something like manage or manage with what’s available.
It’s easy to see how the original phrase came about. Whatever you happen to have may not be ideal, but you can make it do.
The Oxford English Dictionary has this early citation from The Observer (1927): “The listener who was content to receive only the programmes from his local station … could make do with a very simple and inefficient form of direct-coupled tuning arrangement.”
Here’s a more recent cite, from The School of Genius (1988) by the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr: “Many human beings make do with relationships which cannot be regarded as especially close, and not all such human beings are all or even particularly unhappy.”
You’re not the only observer to report this swapping of “due” for “do.” There’s a similar observation on the Language Log, a blog maintained by the linguist Mark Liberman.
I’ve found a few recent examples myself, including headlines like “USC has to make due without Lady Luck” and “Forced to Make Due with the Critic’s Choice Awards” and “Many make due with less this year.”
I could make do with less of this making due!