It might not be a big deal to most people, but you ain’t most people, ai’ you?

Lina Lamont: "People"? I ain't "people." I am a - "a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament."

Lina Lamont: “People”? I ain’t “people.” I am a – “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.” (photo and quote courtesy of IMDB)

When I’m reading a scholarly piece of writing, and run across the word purposefully, I pause. It’s probably inadvertent because if the writer had used the correct word, I’d have breezed on by.

Immediately on the heels of the pause, I usually cringe because the author used the wrong word. Purposefully and purposely are purposely two different words with two different meanings. Because of ignorance, we’ve allowed purposefully to piggyback on purposely‘s meaning—which throws our language out of balance. The result is weak, muddy writing that casts aspersions on the authority of the author. If they don’t even know the difference between purposely and purposefully, how can I believe everything else they say?

Here are some examples:

He purposely teased the cat—means he did it on purpose, as opposed to innocently or unwittingly teasing it; he wanted to aggravate the cat.

He purposefully teased the cat—means he had a purpose or, if it helps, a cause in mind. He was trying to get the cat to do something as a result of the teasing (such as tear his sister’s doll to shreds). So, he did it on purpose for a purpose.

The first usage is probably what you’d intend to say. He was doing the thing on purpose.

She purposefully washed the dishes—means she did it to get something done, e.g. to clean up the kitchen.

She purposely washed the dishes—means she washed them on purpose, which doesn’t make a lot of sense; why bother adding purposely? You’d be more apt to say she vigorously washed them.

To suggest that someone withheld details to purposefully sway our thinking makes a writer sound ignorant. Whereas, to say that details were not purposely withheld is accurate and sounds much more erudite.

Next time you’re confronted with the choice, ask yourself, “Do I mean that the subject of the sentence was full of a purpose or merely acting on purpose.”

Cuz if you get it wrong, you’ll sound more stupider.

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