A healthy or healthful debate

Autumn has arrived and the battle against catching colds has officially begun. The recent weather with its cold winds and heavy rain showers makes it even more difficult to fight off colds. Vitamins and staying dry seem to be the only defense mechanisms which should guarantee getting through autumn and winter without sneezing and coughing. What should do the trick is to eat healthy food and lead a healthy lifestyle. (Check out Ana’s suggestions on http://bananasanas.wordpress.com/) But wait a minute. Healthy? Or is it healthful?

While browsing the web for current usage problems, I came across various blog entries and articles about the difference between healthy and healthful. To be completely honest, I am not even sure whether I have ever used the word healthful before, but apparently I have been continuously misusing healthy according to prescriptivists’ views.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary explains the difference.

If something is beneficial for your health, it is healthful. Thus, it would mean that you are eating healthful, rather than healthy food.

Healthy on the other hand means that something or someone is enjoying good health. So unless your vegetables have not led a healthful lifestyle, they cannot be considered healthy. Do you get the difference?

From a historical perspective, the OED shows that healthful was used before healthy, but its use became already rare in the 16th century. Interestingly, the use of healthy in the sense of healthful has been accepted in the past. Even the Merriam Webster Dictionary states that healthful and healthy can be used synonymously. So why then revive the strict distinction between healthy and healthful? It is time for a healthy or healthful debate.

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate investigating attitudes towards British English Usage at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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8 Responses to A healthy or healthful debate

  1. Matthijs Smits says:

    This is a very interesting entry and I came across this ‘problem’ while doing research on Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage. In the preface to his second edition, entitled “Making Peace in the Language Wars” (link to article below), Garner used ‘healthful’ in a sentence, “Likewise, we say apples are not healthful because wise people eat them, but because of their observable effects on the human body” (page 232). I would have expected to read “healthy”, and I don’t think I have ever used the word “healthful”. Nonetheless, I came upon the distinction in meaning by looking up the words in a dictionary. They currently appear to be synonymous in the sense of “conducive to good health”, and I have always used “healthy” in that context. I think “healthful” is still a good and useful word (it seems a bit old-fashioned to me, however), perhaps it is more unequivocal.

    Garner wrote in his usage guide, “Strictly speaking, healthy refers to a person (or personified thing) in good health, healthful to whatever promotes good health. […] In fact, though, many writers use healthy when they mean healthful, and healthy threatens to edge out its sibling. Such a development would be unhealthful, since it would lead to a less healthy state of the language” (page 416, 3rd edition 2009).

    However, if usage guide writers like Garner maintain that there is a difference in meaning between the two words and that they should not be confused, then I think they’re fighting a losing battle.

    Moreover, if you use the Corpus of Historical American English or the Corpus of Contemporary American English to perform a collocate search of “healthful/healthy” + “food” (i.e., “food that is healthful/healthy, or simply “healthful/healthy food”), it becomes clear that in American English “healthy” is much more common.

    Incidentally, and I have to disappoint Garner again here, apples are not as healthy as we would like to believe.

    http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=18246552 – COCA (healthy + food)

    http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=18246544 – COCA (healthful + food)

    http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/?c=coha&q=18246491 – COHA (healthy + food)

    http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/?c=coha&q=18246455 – COHA (healthful + food)

    http://www.greenbag.org/v7n3/v7n3_article_garner.pdf – preface to Garner’s second edition of Modern American Usage republished in The Green Bag.

    • caebner says:

      I agree with you completely. Even though the two words are used as synonyms, healthy is clearly the more frequent variant. Even though the distinction made between healthy and healthful seems to be logical and to make perfect sense, actual usage tells a different story. To be completely honest, I am not even sure whether people know about the difference. It could well be that some editors or proofreaders simply feel the need for reviving this distinction to make language more complex or to sound more sophisticated. http://www.grammarunderground.com/healthy-vs-healthful.html

  2. Shelly Bender says:

    That is ridiculous. I have always used the word healthful when talking about something that promotes good health. To me, the word healthy in that context does not even make sense. When talking about health, how can something that is not alive be healthy? “He has a very healthy lifestyle.” or “Those vitamins are very healthy and will improve your health.” “Getting enough sleep can be very healthy.” Those all sound stupid to me. I use the word healthful because it is the correct word, not because I am trying to make language more complex or to sound more sophisticated. Just because the wrong word is used more in our society does not make it correct.

    • Carmen Ebner says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. This post is aimed at showing a recent trend of reviving the distinction between healthy and healthful. From a historical perspective, healthy and healthful have developed into synonyms, even though nowadays healthy is more frequently used than healthful. Corpora such as the British National Corpus provide us with clear numbers: healthy (3505) vs. healthful (16). (http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/)
      Since we are investigating the debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists, we are not making judgements, but simply are trying to show trends, identify usage problems and put these up for discussion. So thank you very much for your opinion!

    • Gary says:

      Amen- I have never eaten a “healthy” chicken dinner- the chicken was always dead.

  3. Lee Gal says:

    I have always loved the English language though my use of it may be more fruitful sometimes but it is never fruity. As long as the communication that needs to be conveyed to the other party is duplicated by them then whichever words are used must be working for you.

  4. Doctor Theopolis says:

    I have separated the use of ‘healthy’ and ‘healthful’ for as long as I can remember. It, absolutely, drives me insane to hear someone say “This food is very healthy” when they mean healthful. On a side note, you … look quite healthy. Good argument.

  5. Ann says:

    To me the distinction is a clear one as defined by the dictionary entries. Acceptance of one word for the other is just an example of ambiguity accepted in thought and then in language. Actually one would say she eats healthfully. The prevalent attitude that making the distinction is wrong-headed, overly exacting and petty is more annoying than the actual misuse. Same goes for the vanishing who and whom distinction. Thanks for letting me sound off!

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