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At various points in my life, I finished up a task and excitedly, dutifully, or resignedly announced its completion by saying “I’m done”. And most of the times, this was met with a congratulation, or at least warm indifference. On rare occasions, it was met with a succinct rebuke:

“Cakes are done. People are finished.”

That was all; no explanation given, and me left sitting there wondering why, if the subject of cake was going to be broached, it wasn’t to give me one as a reward. Because the response was so untethered to rational explanation, I would quickly forget about it, only to be reminded each time that I bothered to tell this person that I was done.

Well, I’m done. And so’s the rule. Let me turn the floor over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

Done in the sense of ‘finished’ has been subject to a certain amount of criticism over the years for reasons that are not readily apparent.”

The reasons aren’t unreadily apparent, either; they simply aren’t. MWDEU traces the prohibition against humans being done to MacCracken and Sandison’s 1917 book Manual of Good English, which offers no explanation for its impropriety. In the near-century since, no one else has found a reason for it either. What passes for a justification is that one-liner I quoted above; for instance, in one professor’s list of “errors to avoid“, we’re given this explanation, posted in its entirety:

“30. If something has been completed, it is finished–it is not ‘done’. Remember, cakes are done; people are finished.”

It looks to me that the real reason why people started complaining about this usage is that it had two signs of the prescriptivist devil: it was a new usage, and it was a non-standard usage. To be done, the MWDEU reports, supplanted to have done for states of being starting sometime in the 1700s or earlier, which on a prescriptivist timescale somehow counts as “new”. Furthermore, the OED classifies this usage as chiefly Irish, Scottish, American, and dialectal, which to a prescriptivist is just a long way of saying improper. And usually finished sounds fancier than done, which no doubt contributed to the distaste for done.

But unless you believe in 300-year-old grudges, there’s no reason to be against people being done. According to the OED, Thomas Jefferson used it, as did Jeremy Bentham (the philospoher, not the Lost character) and others. There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different, either. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto, this injunction would long ago gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.

Summary: Cakes are done; people are finished? Nope. Cakes can also be finished and people can also be done. And stop mentioning cake if you’re only teasing me.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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