On Posting Regularly: Obliged or Obligated?

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry: I’m about three hours later than usual. Then again, this blog has only been up for two weeks, so I’m trusting my eight regular readers (That includes you, my two loyal feed subscribers! Thanks!) to forgive the later update.

See, I grew up in California. I’ve got a little bit of that Protestant work ethic in me (or maybe just Jewish guilt) that makes me feel obligated to write regular daily posts, just as I feel obligated to market my word business to ensure that potential customers know who I am.

But as this is a word-obsessed blog, I have to ask, dear readers: does my use of obligated grate on your nerves? Is your lip curling as you read this at work? Are you cursing me under your breath for adding two extra syllables to the perfectly serviceable obliged?

Take a deep breath. You’re probably English.

Obligated passes the Merriam-Webster test: in U.S. English the word means legally or morally bound, and I find it makes an excellent description for the commitment I have made to put a new post up here every day.

Of course, good old M-W has a similar definition for oblige:

1: to constrain by physical, moral, or legal force or by the exigencies of circumstance <obliged to find a job>
2 a: to put in one’s debt by a favor or service <we are much obliged for your help>
b: to do a favor for <always ready to oblige a friend>

Here’s the thing: I’m a huge word nerd. When I was eleven, I got laughed out of after-school detention for using the word “procedure.” My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is one of my most prized possessions. My multifarious vocabulary has won me large amounts of money.

And I don’t think I have ever uttered the word obliged.

My English friends, however, use it all the time. As a matter of fact, they use it in every single instance that I would use the word obligated. So is this all another tempest in a teapot?

Looks like. In my decidedly unscientific survey of the interwebs, I found that most posters who had problems with “obligated” were indeed English. And “John” at Pain in the English knows why:

From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage page 675
“obligated” remains in Scottish and American use, but has dropped out of British English. Both “obliged” and “obligated” mean “being constrained legally or morally”. When the constraint is applied by physical force or circumstances, “obliged” is used. “obligated” is also used to been “indebted for a service or favour”.

John’s right. I checked Google Books and the entry for obligated came up on exactly the page he said it would. There’s an even better explanation, too:

Part of the diffidence toward obligated that is to be found in usage books may come from its having dropped out of use in British English while remaining in Scottish and American use. British commentators and commentators born in areas of British speech are hostile to obligated …Bremner 1980 quotes with obvious satisfaction the fun George Bernard Shaw made of [U.S. President] Woodrow Wilson’s use of the word.

I think that about wraps up today’s U.S.-U.K. debate. But here’s some more amusing evidence that obligated really has dropped out of English English:

And finally:

I was once a legal proofreader/ copy editor in the US. We snagged the word “obliged” (in a multimillion-dollar legal contract) where it should have been “obligated.” We were thanked profusely by the attorneys involved, who said it saved their hides.

25 Comments »

  • Rex Harrison said:  
    (On 3 March 2008 at 6:22 PM)

    “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate”, William of Ockham

    Does this hold for syllables? If they really do exactly the same thing should we prefer the shorter?

  • Casey said:  
    (On 3 March 2008 at 6:30 PM)

    Not if the longer is the more common form. Wouldn’t you agree when it comes to oriented/orientated?

  • legal translator said:  
    (On 4 March 2008 at 10:52 AM)

    Hi, I was puzzled by the usage of the two words and posted a question at painintheenglish.com where you left your link that led me here. I’m a non-native English speaker,working as a legal translator, playing with words, both Chinese and English, every day. I enjoy it a lot as you enjoy your “word business”. Just to say hello to you, a hello from one of your new readers!

  • Casey said:  
    (On 4 March 2008 at 10:58 AM)

    Hello legal translator, and welcome to the Belletra blog! I enjoy translation a lot too. I hope you’ll find some interesting English information here, and feel free to e-mail me any language questions you have–I can always use inspiration for new blog posts!

  • Beverly said:  
    (On 4 March 2008 at 1:15 PM)

    I’ve recently been reading through all the Jane Austen novels, and it took about two books before I started understanding what she was saying all the time. I imagine the 200 year gap is the main cause, but I expect there are some British things going on, as well.

  • Casey said:  
    (On 4 March 2008 at 1:56 PM)

    Very well could be! Kudos to you for plowing your way through anyway.

  • Stefan said:  
    (On 5 March 2008 at 2:50 PM)

    I thought you might find it interesting that in H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law — a seminal work (perhaps the seminal modern work) in jurisprudential theory — a key part of the argument turns on the distinction between “obligated” and “obliged.” Hart’s view is that a law does not require a sanction to be understood as a law, repudiating a common jurisprudential position advocated by John Austin. Hart gives the example of stopping at a stop sign when no one else is there (including no pesky police handing out tickets). You are not obliged to stop, according to Hart, but you are obligated to do so. Likewise, if a gunman insists you hand over your valuables, you are obliged to do so but not <obligated. See, e.g., H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law, pp. 79-88 (5th ed. 1986). Hart, by the way, was English.
    Let me also note that I discovered your interesting , and perhaps to be wonderful, blog, through the helpful links at the National Grammar Day website (I’m not a prescriptivist, either, but then …).

  • Casey said:  
    (On 5 March 2008 at 6:05 PM)

    Stefan, thank you for your illuminating comment. Not only is it interesting, it makes a great coda to the blockquote comment from legal translator at the end of the original post. I wondered why obliged and obligated could have such different legal consequences; now I know!

    Thank you also for the compliments. This is a very new blog, and I’m glad you found it! I hope you’ll enjoy the future posts, and by all means do make suggestions if there’s some English question that’s been irking you.

  • Annie Glimmerglass said:  
    (On 5 March 2008 at 8:28 PM)

    Stefan’s comment is in line with my own here. I think of “obliged” as more self-imposed, and “obligated” as more imposed from outside. Thanks, Stefan, for saying it far better than I could!

  • legal translator said:  
    (On 6 March 2008 at 8:31 AM)

    It’s so happy to read your posts,Casey. I will you consult you some questions to better understand English usages according to a native’s view. Stefan, thank you for giving us so accurate a quote! I will try to find that book. Is it possible to find it online? thank you

  • Belletra » See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Out-Group Illusion said:  
    (On 10 April 2008 at 12:14 PM)

    […] as an example the posts on this blog that deal with the US/UK language divide. My post on obliged vs. obligated has received more hits to date than any other piece of writing on this site. I even got a link on […]

  • Talia said:  
    (On 17 September 2008 at 7:11 PM)

    I was doing some philosophy reading and I cam across the following quote which immediately made me think of this post and I had to show it to you. The philosopher here notices a subtle distinction between the way “obliged” and “obligated” might be used.
    “The plausibility of the claim that the gunman situation displays the meaning of obligation lies in the fact that it is certainly one in which we would say that B, if he obeyed, was ‘obliged’ to hand over his money. It is, however, equally certain that we should misdescribe the situation if we said, on these facts, that B ‘had an obligation’ or a ‘duty’ to hand over the money. So from the start it is evident that we need something else for an understanding of the idea of obligation. There is a difference, yet to be explained, between the assertion that someone was obliged to do something and the assertion that he had an obligation to do it.” (Hart 1994, 82)

  • Talia said:  
    (On 17 September 2008 at 7:15 PM)

    Oh, and yes, he’s British.

  • Casey said:  
    (On 18 September 2008 at 6:08 PM)

    Talia, that’s very illuminating! Thank you for adding it to the discussion.

    Of course, since he’s British, we can’t be sure that an American would make the same distinction, although I certainly see his logic…

  • Tessa Donne said:  
    (On 17 January 2010 at 11:31 AM)

    Obliged is the best word in my opinion. It is elegant and means the same. Think “obligated” comes from people who have heard and use the word obligation but are not familiar with obliged which is not in common usage. Most people say, “have to” or “must” instead.
    It is like saying “woken up” instead of “awakened.”
    “Woken up,” just sounds ignorant and awkward to me

  • Casey said:  
    (On 17 January 2010 at 1:56 PM)

    It’s interesting you should say that, Tessa, because I have noticed lately that “woken” seems to be the UK usage, while “awakened” seems to be the U.S. choice. Your mix of UK (obliged) and US (awakened) preferences makes me wonder where you’re writing in from!

  • ajithkumarcc said:  
    (On 29 January 2010 at 8:18 PM)

    Hi,

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  • Paul Knowles said:  
    (On 23 August 2010 at 7:01 AM)

    What many people seem to be missing, here and on other websites where the obliged – obligated argument flares up is that many quoted passages refer to obliged and obligate but not obligated.
    Obligate and obligation are legitimate and accepted, as is obliged, but the legitimacy of obligated is questionable and I have seen nothing yet to prove it’s legitimacy.

    Someone posted elswhere that it is in the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson (English author) from 1740; but on investigation I can only see the word used in descriptions of the novel and not in the novel itself. Even if it is in this novel, there is no law against an author making mistakes.

    In the UK I can only really (mostly) find the word obligated used in relation to legally binding duties that apply to non-persons, i.e. companies.
    So I don’t think that obligated can currently be used legitimately in conversation in Britian and countries speaking British English. However, and as is obvious from this blog and others like it, the use of obligated is common in the US; which in my opinion is just fine.

    It sounds wrong to British English speakers and indeed it would be wrong in British English but languages constantly evolve and the words obliged and obligated seem to have stemmed from Latin and French routes and have evolved into the words we use today and of course English continues to evolve as it should. Some people don’t like it and beleive that the original usage is the correct one but I belive that the most common usage, even if different to the original intended usage is also correct, that’s how language develops.

    I like how there is a fairly common understanding that in American English, Obliged is something one feels compelled to do which is different to obligated which is something one is forced to do by law or contract. The only problem I see is that many people only learn one version (it would seem that for American English speakers this would usually be Obligated) and use that one word for both meanings and therefore use it incorrectly.

    So as far as I can tell:
    British English: Obliged only (When refering to persons, obliged would seem to be the original word)
    American English Obliged and Obligated (When refering to persons, with subtle differences as described above).

  • lionel hurst said:  
    (On 3 January 2012 at 10:02 PM)

    The use of the longer and less efficient word “obligated” is typical of American abuse of the English language – which they no longer really speak.If you want to speak English, refer to an English dictionary, not a cheap American copy.As an Australian I am obliged to point out that a “obligate” sounds like a seriously deformed entrance portal.

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