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Ddone instead of finished to indicate the completion of a task. For example, at dinnertime my children would announce
Are the dishes Done or Finished? "I'm
done" and ask to be excused. My aunts insist that "I'm finished" is the appropriate phrase. Is this just a matter of taste? Is finished preferred only in the context of eating a meal? Aren't done and finished grammatically equivalent? Can I never be done with the dishes? Please help!

Elizabeth Markiewicz

Theodore M. Bernstein, in his , published in 1965, asserted that the headline "Ecuador Rail Line Done" illustrated "an improper, casual use of done," and at the time, his point of view was not unusual. But a slim majority of the usage panel for the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, which appeared four years later, did not object to the word even in an official-sounding context, and the current edition of the dictionary simply presents "finished" as one of the meanings of done, treating the matter as settled. The Boy Scouts, certainly, draw no distinction between done and finished: their lyrics for "Taps" begin, "Day is done, gone the sun" -- and perhaps they are paraphrasing Shakespeare, who wrote, "The bright day is done, / And we are for the dark." Nowadays the distinction between the two words is observed more by aunts and grandmothers than by grammarians.


Aly sounds wrong. Am I right?

Dale Harber

Yes, you are. If the intention really were to indicate which report this one is in a sequence, a corporation that is, say, ten years old should be issuing its "Fortieth Quarterly Report." But the idea is that the report covers the first quarter of the year. One says that just the way one says weather report, book report, and traffic report:


Fbode. They say that something "bodes ill," as in "A poor showing in the Alps bodes ill for a Tour de France victory," using bode (correctly, I believe) as a transitive verb with the noun object ill;
A poor showing in the Alps yet when things are looking up, these same pundits state that an event
bodes well, as in "The many favorable reviews bode well for the film's Oscar chances." If something is said to bode ill, shouldn't a reversal of fortune lead us to say it bodes good?

William E. Kennedy

Although your logic and your knowledge of the way parts of speech function are impeccable, speakers and writers since Dryden, in 1700, have used bodes well. Well, an ancient word, can be grammatically slippery: for example, how would you parse "Leave well enough alone"? All this, I admit, could just as well be used to explain why bodes well is considered a forgivable mistake. It is, however, considered correct. As scrupulous dictionaries indicate, an exception has been made for well to the otherwise reliable rule that bode (roughly speaking, a synonym for foretell) is transitive and therefore must lead into a noun.


Am I correct in deploring the use of a modifier or qualifier preceding the word unique, which is heard every day on radio? The common expression is very unique.

Gus Calgren

has traditionally belonged to the group of adjectives called absolute or incomparable -- meaning that the quality the word refers to must, logically, be either fully present or altogether absent, with no gradations possible in between.
Unique child One can't, for example, be just a little bit bankrupt, or a little bit anonymous or pregnant or dead. Quite a few people, though, seem not to have gotten the news that unique numbers among this rarefied company. And so someone reading or hearing unique can no longer assume that it was intended to mean "one of a kind"; maybe the writer or speaker just meant "unusual." This is too bad, because extraordinary and exceptional and rare and curious and unwonted and strange and peculiar and abnormal, and other words as well, in their various ways all mean "unusual," but unique, in its true meaning and in the contexts natural to it, is very nearly unique.


Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Illustrations by Regan Dunnick




The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Word Court; Volume 279, No. 1; page 100.



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