Are You Done or Finished?

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.

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  1. Love this blog. This is the type of conversation we (my UK/USA) family have from time to time around the dinner table…which leaves a few children fed up. Thanks for such and enjoyable read!

  2. Unless you’re an editor or a teacher, there’s no reason to “correct” another adult’s English. If you understand someone, what’s the point in correcting her? None at all. Some people feel superior by “correcting” what they think is grammatically incorrect, and often the person doing the correcting is wrong, as well as rude. Prescriptivists should get another hobby instead of annoying other Standard American English speakers, or correcting people who speak English as a second, third, or tenth language.

    I’m done.

  3. “Done” is the end of a Passive process.
    “Finished” is the end of Active process.
    I am surprised you don’t know this. If I’m wrong, give me some examples.

    1. I’ve never heard that definition, and it doesn’t make sense to me. I’m done talking (not passive). We say “I’m done with you.” How passive is that? Just saying–meaning and usage changes over time and what we look at is how acceptable a particular meaning is now in society. Bryan Garner has a 1-5 rating system that rates a word or term based on that in his book on usage. Very enlightening.

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