Does “functionality” have a function?

Q: I work as a technical writer at a software development company and I am plagued by the word “functionality,” as in “We are happy to expand the functionality of your program.” Why would I use “functionality” when I could use “function” or “features”?

A: In many cases, as you point out, the noun “functionality” is just a fancy way of saying “function” or “features.”

But for nearly a century and a half, “functionality” has had another meaning: the quality of being functional – that is, able to perform a function.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this citation from an 1871 book on philology: “The old native Latin, whose vitality and functionality was all but purely flectional.” (The word “flectional” refers to grammatical forms that reflect tense, case, number, and so on.)

In the computer age, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), “functionality” has also come to mean a useful function in a computer application or program.

So “functionality” can be a handy word if you’re emphasizing the usability or workability of something, but there are other handy words, including “usability” and “workability” and “handiness.”

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