Posted by: Jack Henry | November 1, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Done versus Finished

Dear Editrix,

When I was in elementary school, as children often do when completing assignments, someone would often shout out, “Teacher, I’m done.” My teacher’s response was always “How long have you been in the oven?” I never knew if she was correcting the student’s grammar or if she was being glib. It raises the question of whether the term applies only to cooking, or is it proper to use done when one is finished with a task?

Curious in Missouri

Dear Curious,

I read a lot of information about this topic, and I also remember on What Not to Wear hearing Stacy always say, “Stick a fork in me, I’m done.” I just figured her use of that (instead of finished), was a joke. Now I see that it was probably something her teacher used to say.

What I could find, overall, is that teachers used to say that “done” is for food, and “finished” is for people completing a task. But that is more “old school.” What Grammar Girl reports is this:

Done vs. Finished

When you push back from the Thanksgiving table and say, "I’m done," a cranky relative may attempt to correct you by replying, "A turkey is done; you’re finished."

Although done has been used to mean "finished" for centuries, admonitions against it started surfacing in the early 1900s. The first style guide that advised against using done to mean "finished” didn’t give a reason for the declaration, and the current Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage speculates that the advice was based on bias against the usage’s "Irish, Scots, and U.S." origin.

The "rule" against done has been widely taught in schools, but no historical pattern or logic supports it, and most credible modern usage guides either don’t address it at all (e.g., AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage) or simply note that done and finished are interchangeable (e.g., Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English).

Take that, Aunt Ruth!

Go forth, be free, and be done or finished. It’s up to you! I promise I won’t come back and nag you with jokes from your third-grade teacher about being a piece of food in the oven and “done.”

Stick a fork in me…I’m done!

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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