Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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Objections to ‘to be done with something.’ Uniquely American? I’m done with the topic, anyway.

9 Comments

(four-minute read)



Here’s a language issue that’s new to me.

The other day on Twitter @The_GrammarGeek asked:

‘There’s an opinion out there that it’s wrong to use “done” to mean “finished,” as in, “I’m done with my homework.” But this use of “done” has been widely used since the 15th century. Any idea/when where the false rule originated?’

Another tweep, Karen Conlin (thanks, Karen!) then tweeted that this issue is not mentioned in my edition of Fowler (4th edn., 2015), and asked if I could shed any light on it. Here goes, then…

If you’re in a hurry…

  • That highly specific use (= ‘to have finished, completed + NOUN’) seems to be mainly U.S.
  • So, strictures against it have no reason to appear in Br.E. manuals.
  • That specific use is 18th century onwards, rather than 15th.
  • According to M-W’s Concise Dict. of English Usage, objections to it were first raised in 1917, with no obvious justification.

If you’ve got longer…

Here’s my two pennies’ worth.

First, to use ‘done’ in exactly that construction, namely, HAVE + done + with + NOUN and with that precise meaning (= ‘to have completed’), is not something I personally would say (is not part of my ‘idiolect’), and – I’m speculating here – is not something most Br.E. speakers would say either. (Looking for evidence in do, one of the most common verbs in the language, could be a Herculean, not to say Sisyphean, enterprise!)

However, I might say  ‘I’m done with blogging’, using the pattern to be done with + –ing form (verbal noun), but I think that is a slightly different meaning (‘I will never do it again’ = ‘I’m through with blogging’).

And I would also write, though probably not say, the standard phrase ‘let’s tell him and be done with it’.

If the above claim is true, then there is no reason why a fatwa against the use should exist in Br.E. usage manuals. I’ve checked in all three previous editions of Fowler, and the issue has not been treated. My additions and amendments were based on notes kept over several years about issues that had struck me, and this was not one of them.

Second, what exactly is this use, and where does it come from?

What can the OED can tell us?

Previous edition

The previous edition (1989) makes it a second sub-sense under the more general, somewhat undifferentiated rubric of

8. (In pa. pple. and perf. tenses.) To accomplish, complete, finish, bring to a conclusion. to be done, to be at an end.’

The sub-sense is headed

b. to be done is used of the agent instead of ‘to have done’, in expressing state rather than action. (Chiefly IrishSc.U.S., and dial.)

That geographical information in brackets is important.

The first example given dates to 1766, from T. Amory’s Life of John Buncle II. x. 365

I was done with love for ever.

(Amory, btw, grew up in Ireland.)

The second citation, however, is from Thomas Jefferson: 1771 T. Jefferson Let. T. Adams in Harper’s Mag. No. 482. 206

One farther favor and I am done.

Current edition

The current edition (3rd edn., March 2014) is more nuanced. It puts that Life of John Buncle quotation (I was done with love for ever) at the head of a category (10. a. (b)) captioned thus:

‘Of a person: to be at the end of one’s dealings with, to have no further truck with; = sense10b(b).’

In other words, it makes it equivalent to ‘to have done with something/someone’ as in Shakespeare’s Do what thou wilt for I haue done with thee, and as the earlier edition also did.

On that analysis, the Buncle quote could have been I had done with love forever.

The meaning that is truly the one at issue, I think, is now lexicographed as follows (underlining mine):

10. a. (c) Of a person or other agent of action: to be at the end of what one is doing, to be finished. Also with complement expressing the action being finished. Now chiefly U.S.’

That note ‘chiefly U.S.’ chimes with Karen’s hunch that the use is more U.S. than British and is substantiated by the citations the OED chose:

The Jefferson quote heads that category, and the other examples are, with one exception, U.S.:

1876   H. B. Smith in Life (1881) 404   After this is done I am done.

1879   Literary World 6 Dec. 400/1   The mills of the gods are not yet done grinding.

1883   Cent. Mag. 25 767/1 ‘Going..at twenty-four thousand dollars! Are you all done?’ He scanned the crowd.

1971   M. B. Powell & G. Higman Finite Simple Groups i. 5   Since g is arbitrary, we are done [i.e. we have completed the proof].

1981   J. Blume Tiger Eyes (1982) xxi. 87 ‘Davey..are you almost done?’ Jane calls, knocking on the bathroom door.

2000   A. Hagy Keeneland 242   You are full of total dog shit. I’m done putting up with you.

Note the examples with the –ing form, which I noted earlier that I would use. I might also say, similarly to the 1981 example above, ‘Are you quite done!’ as a retort to someone, for example, who was being rude or offensive at length.

Quick statistical note

A trawl in the Feb. 2018 ‘Monitor Corpus’ of the Oxford English Corpus for the string BE + done + with + –ing form retrieves 1,029 examples. Almost half are of unknown source, but of those whose source is known 265 are U.S., 65 British, e.g.

DANIEL Craig is said to be done with playing Bond, but producers are willing to do the impossible to keep the superstar happy.

As he’s mentioned in the example above, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add a variant of the almost legendary image from Casino Royale to add pep to a potentially dry topic.

An earlier version of the corpus (2014) shows a not dissimilar ratio.

Yes, but what about the prohibition against?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the M-W dict.’s earliest note is from 1917.  The M-W entry also notes the Heritage Usage Panel in 1969 47 percent disapproved of it, suggesting that it was a rule that had been forced on many of them.

Is it still being trotted out/bandied about? If so, please let me know where.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

9 thoughts on “Objections to ‘to be done with something.’ Uniquely American? I’m done with the topic, anyway.

  1. Jefferson: “One farther favor and I am done”. Did he mean further favor, do you think, or has the differentiation between further and farther evolved with time? Curiously yours, Margaret

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    • I think the two words (when used as adjectives) meant pretty much the same as each other from about teh end of the 12th century until the end of the 19th century, but the use of father as an adjective had been declining for some time up to 1900 and continued to decline so that by now “further” is the normal form, whichever side of the pond one is. But I’m an amateur, maybe a professional will have a better answer.

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    • Hi, Margaret. ‘Further’ long since gained the upper hand. There’s quite a detailed discussion of this in Fowler.

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  2. I wonder whether the “done” meaning “finished” suggested to be 15the century by @The Grammar Girl was actually the “done” in “I have done my homework” (used that way it certainly meant “finished” at least that long ago) rather that the “done” in the phrase she identified: “I am done with my homework”. And even in modern times I would expect a youngster saying “I’m finished with my homework” to be referring specifically to that day’s homework, which [s]he will not be doing tomoerrow because [s]he will then have new homework which will take priority over today’s, not meaning “I’ll never do any homework again”. I’ve had four teenage chidren saying it, perhaps more often to my wife than to me, so I know it doesn’t mean permanently refusing any homework in about 75% of cases.
    And I’ve heard it used outside my family in that specific sense by Scots, Englishmen, and Welshmen so I don’t think it’s as American as you suggest (and the corpora) suggest – perhaps thisis one of those cases where what’s written and what’s spoken differ.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Micheal. I’m talking about a very specific syntax and meaning here. Yes, to say “I’m finished with my homework” is normal in Br.E., but we’re talking about ‘I’m done with my homework.’

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  3. Just now, to my wife, who is showing restraint in entering our little kitchen: “I’m done in here, you come and get your breakfast”. To me, this usage of ‘done’ emphasises completion, even if only temporary (because I’ll be back soon for another cup of tea). In this example, there is no idea of abandonment, of making a complete and final break, tho I can think of many where this would be the case, viz: “I’m done trying to argue with people who think that ‘grammar’ and spelling conventions are the same thing” . HTH (we are both from northern England, by the way, tho I’ve never thought of this as a regional usage)

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    • Thanks for the comment, Tom. I agree entirely, and ‘I’m done in here’ is something I would certainly say; I hadn’t thought of it at the time of writing, so thanks. And, yes, it is not definitive, never to be repeated. The thrust of the blog, though, was directed at the very specific ‘to be done with + NOUN’, as in the example cited by the GrammarGeek. Would you say that? J.

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  4. Very interesting! To this North American, “I’m done!” sounds perfectly natural, if a bit informal. I notice that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage also lists “finished.” In that entry, they suggest that complaints about that usage during the 19th century coincides with the period in which participial adjectives became more common. Perhaps discomfort with participles used as adjectives is the primary objection to both done and finished, as well as to such usages as “I’m very pleased” (see MWDEU entry under very.)

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