Etymology Grammar Usage

Is “done” on the “finish” line?

Q: I cringe every time I hear “I am done” instead of “I am finished.” Am I right in thinking the correct terminology here is “finished“?

A: Well, “finished” is correct in that sentence, but so is “done.”

In fact, the adjective “done” has meant finished since well before the adjective “finished” entered the English language.

But you’re not alone in mistakenly thinking that there’s something fishy about the use of “done” to mean finished. Here’s the story.

The adjective “done” (meaning finished, performed, accomplished, etc.) first showed up in writing during the early 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the OED has citations dating from the early 1300s of the past participle “done” used in a similar way.

The slowpoke here, the adjective “finished,” didn’t show up until the late 1500s, according to OED citations.

As we’ve said, “done” has been used steadily since the beginning of the 14th century to mean finished. Here are some examples:

“When the Clerkes have dooen syngyng,” Book of Common Prayer, 1549;

“And having done that, Thou haste done, I have no more,” John Donne, 1623;

“Now the Chime of Poetry is done,” John Dryden, 1697;

“It was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew,” A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843.

So how did “done” get its bad reputation?

In early examples, “done” is usually accompanied by the verb “have,” as in the citation from the Book of Common Prayer (“have dooen syngyng”). In later examples, it’s usually accompanied by the verb “be,” as in the Dryden example (“is done”).

As far as we know, nobody complained about either usage until the 20th century, when some language mavens got it into their heads that it was OK to use “done” with “have,” but not with “be,” in a sentence like the one in your question.

The first objection to the “be” usage appeared in the Manual of Good English (1917), by H. N. MacCracken and Helen E. Sandison, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

“They do not say what is wrong with it but prescribe have finished in its place,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

Other language mavens joined in, but by the late 20th century most of the objections had been dropped and the use of “done” to mean finished was considered standard English, according to the M-W usage guide.

We could stop here, but we’re not done yet. We’ll finish with a proverb that first showed up in writing in the 1700s but had probably been heard in speech much earlier:

“Man’s work lasts till set of sun; woman’s work is never done.”

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