August 21, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: oblige or obligate

Posted in obligate/oblige at 8:20 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Obliged or obligated

I was wondering what the difference is—or if there is a difference at all—between the words, obliged and obligated.

I did some research on this and found, to my chagrin, that this is not the first time we addressed this topic. It came up once before—a couple of years ago, and I completely forgot about it. However, it was somewhat reassuring to find that even though my memory may not be a sound as it once was (although who is to say that it ever was sound), my answer has remained the same over time.

And this is it. Obligated and obliged both refer to being compelled to do something whether it be for legal reasons, moral sensibility, or for some other reason. So, they can be used synonymously. However, there are a few things that need to be said. First, while both words are quite old, and both can be found in English literature, obligated is not used in British English anymore. The reason I mention this first is that there are some people who are really bent out of shape by the use of—nay, the mere existence of—the word, obligated (oh, those crazy Americans). Whatever.

Second, some say that obligate is more often seen in a legal context. I can’t confirm or deny this. It certainly has the ‘sound’ of formality, but that doesn’t really prove anything one way or another. There is, however, enough ‘noise’ about this use to make me mention it.

Finally, if the obligation is associated with a sense of gratitude or thanks or indebtedness, then, the word you want to use is oblige. It’s not clear why this has come to be, but it is one of the few facts associated with oblige and obligate for which there is no dispute. And I really like it when there is no dispute.

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