The Grammarphobia Blog

“Healthy” vs. “healthily”

Q: My question concerns eating habits—that is, how to describe them. Does one eat “healthy” or “healthily”?

A: You’re asking about adverbs, but let’s first discuss adjectives, a subject we wrote about in 2012 and 2006.

Most readers of the blog are probably familiar with the traditional view on the adjectives: a food is “healthful” while a person who eats it is “healthy.” This is a distinction that was invented (for no good reason) in the late 19th century.

But as we said in those blog posts, language authorities haven’t insisted on that for many years. It’s become almost universal to refer to “healthy food,” as well as to “healthy people.”

Today, the usage is considered standard English. Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains it in a usage note:

“In fact, the word healthy is far more common than healthful when modifying words like diet, exercise, and foods, and healthy may strike many readers as more natural in many contexts. Certainly, both healthy and healthful must be considered standard in describing that which promotes health.”

And as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “If you ignore the distinction” between the two adjectives, “you are absolutely correct, and in the majority.”

Both “healthy” and “healthful,” not to mention “healthily,” are derived from haelth, Old English for soundness of body. (We’ve replaced the runic letter thorn with “th.”)

All three words ultimately come from a prehistoric German ancestor of the English word “whole,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. Thus “health,” Ayto says, is etymologically the “state of being whole.”

So is “healthy” making inroads on “healthily” as well as “healthful,” and becoming accepted as an adverb? Apparently the change is beginning, but it’s not yet firmly established.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t recognize the usage. It has citations for “healthy” as an adjective going back to the 16th century, and for “healthily” as an adverb dating from the 17th century.

However, American Heritage now accepts “healthy” as an adverb meaning “so as to promote one’s health” or “in a healthy way.” The dictionary gives this example: “If you eat healthy, you’ll probably live longer.”

Nevertheless, seven of the eight standard dictionaries we checked don’t accept the usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), like the other dictionaries we consulted, hasn’t yet made the leap. M-W’s entry for “healthy” gives only adjectival uses.

But it’s only a matter of time, in our opinion, before “healthy” is recognized as an adverb. That’s because the word is already widely used this way in common practice.

The phrase “eat healthy” gets more than twice as many Google hits (2.4 million) as “eat healthily” (1 million). As we’ve said many times, popular usage eventually wins out.

So go ahead and “eat healthy.” Our guess is that “eat healthily” will begin to sound stuffy before long, if it doesn’t already. 

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