Answer Man

Answer Man: Reader told to finish off her use of ‘done’

Q. When our exercise class is over, one woman insists we are not DONE but we are FINISHED. Which is the correct word?

— G.P., of Belleville

A. June Casagrande figures it’s a nightmarish scene that has played out for decades at dinner tables around the country. A child eats his hamburger, half his potatoes and one of his brussels sprouts. Then he pushes his plate away and says, “I am done.”

Mom quickly considers discussing all the starving children in Africa and thinks better of it. Instead, like her mother before her and her grandmother before that, she decides to inform her son that his soul is in peril because he has just committed one of the deadliest sins in the English language.

“No, young man, cakes are done,” she says in her best professorial manner. “You are finished.”

Having never heard this Golden Rule before, the boy looks at her quizzically and tempts fate by asking her to explain the difference. Stunned by the unexpected questioning of this age-old language law, she eventually has to rely on that all-purpose, never-fail parental reasoning, “Because I said so.”

Sadly, although it may make the child forever wary of English teachers and their rules, it’s the only explanation the poor mother could give. At least, that’s the opinion of Casagrande, a journalist who has written the books “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax” along with a humorous weekly grammar column.

She — along with numerous other experts — say the preference of “finished” over “done” in the circumstance you mention has no basis. In fact, you can tell your classmate that you literally have history on your side when you use “done” as you do after your sweaty routines.

As it turns out, the Oxford English Dictionary says people started using the adjective “done” to mean “finished” nearly 300 years before the adjective “finished” ever came along in the late 1500s, according to the blog Grammarphobia by journalists Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman.

“When the clerks have done singing,” stated the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. “Now the chime of poetry is done,” wrote John Dryden in 1697. “It was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew,” Charles Dickens wrote in his famous Christmas tale.

Here’s where the problem may have arisen: At first, done was used with the verb “have,” meaning, more or less, “to accomplish” — i.e., I have done something. But then people began using it as an adjective with the verb “be.” Soon, like you, people were saying “I am done” to mean “I am finished.”

Apparently, this dual usage was just fine with scholars for centuries. It was even good enough for Thomas Jefferson. But in 1917, H.N. McCracken and Helen Sandison in their book “Manual of Good English” suddenly commanded that “done” shalt nevermore be used with any form of the verb “be.” No explanation was given. They simply were done ... er ... finished with “I am done.”

“The best that modern-day researchers can figure is that the authors of this book took it upon themselves to say that a very well-established word usage should just no longer be tolerated,” Casagrande wrote.

For whatever reason, this inexplicable rule caught on and started to be handed down from generation to generation. In 1965, grammar god Theodore Bernstein in his English bible “The Careful Writer” decreed, “(Done) should not be used in good writing to mean finished or completed. It is proper to say the roast is done but this does not mean it is finished. It means that the roast is sufficiently cooked.”

Like that befuddled parent I mentioned, Bernstein offered no explanation, relying only on his journalistic say-so. Apparently, it was another case of Casagrande’s grammar snobs turning up their noses at a relatively new, non-standard use even though it had been commonly accepted for centuries.

So, if you try to pass this rule on to your children, you’d also better tell them never to look up the word “done” in the dictionary. There, the very first definition is “completed; ended” while the second is “sufficiently cooked.”

Instead, I’d follow the thinking of Gabe Doyle, who has a master of linguistics degree and writes the Motivated Grammar blog:

“There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto (“cakes are done; people are finished”), this injunction long ago would have gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.”

Now, you can stick a fork in this column; it is done.

Today’s trivia

On special occasions, the British insurance market known as Lloyd’s of London rings a historic bell before announcing important news. What is the origin of that bell?

In 1893, J. Stanley Brown took over as principal of Joliet Township High School. A big supporter of higher education, Brown encouraged his students to go on to college, but many could not because of the expense. So, in 1901, Brown teamed up with William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, to add a fifth and sixth year at the high school. They called it Joliet Junior College, which is believed to be the country’s first public community college. In its first year, it had just six students. Now, with additional campuses in Romeoville, Morris and Frankfort, it has an enrollment of more than 16,000. According the Department of Education, there now are more than 1,650 community colleges across the country.