A child pushes a plate away at the end of the meal and announces, “I’m done.”
The well-intentioned but misinformed parent chides, “You’re finished, dear. Cakes are done. People are finished.”
Are they? Is there a rule that tells when to use done and when to use finished?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, done has been accepted and used in good company as the past tense of do dating back to the 1300s. There seems to have been some preference or practice for using have with done and be/am verbs only with finished. It’s also worth noting that finished is a more recent term, dating only to the 1700s. So the insistence on using done only in reference to things and finished to people is really a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the reality that languages are living, breathing, and changing things.
Modern dictionaries agree. Most define done first as a past form of do, which means to accomplish or complete an effort. Done, meaning “cooked adequately,” is much further down the list. But this does show that yes, people can be both done and/or finished.
However, finished implies an object (called a transitive verb) in this type of structure. Finished what? Dinner. Finished with what? With eating.
But when using finished as an intransitive verb (not needing an object), it can also mean something like “I’m washed up,” “done for [there’s done again],” “I’m toast [okay, slang, but you get the idea].” Which gets me thinking about done and how it describes the degree something (like a cut of meat) is cooked. Can you be “well done” with your dinner?
So go right ahead and excuse yourself from the table with an “I’m done.” And don’t let anyone tell you you’re finished instead of done. Unless they really mean you are washed up.