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|Written by Miss Smartypants|
|Monday, 18 April 2011 00:00|
Dear Miss Smartypants,
What's the difference between "obligate" and "oblige"? I've always used the former, but I'm hearing the latter more and more these days. At first I thought it was a usage difference, but that no longer strikes me as the answer. Is there a difference?
I Oblige You to Answer Me
Dear And Now I Feel Obligated,
At first I turned to our old friends Strunk and White for the skinny, but they've got no insights this month. It's not a difference between our old friends transitive and intransitive verbs (they're both transitive), though I can tell you that obligate comes from the past participle of obligare, which is the Latin root of oblige and obligate. In terms of dictionary definition alone, obligate carries more of a legal sense to it than oblige, which is more of a moral/kindness/etiquette issue.
Looks like there are two schools of thought on this one. One says that "obligate" is American (North American?), and "oblige" is British (international?). The other says that "obligate" is a stronger form of "oblige." Obligations have heavier consequences than those situations in which you are merely obliged. This second idea lines up with my own usage of obligate (I don't think I've ever used "oblige" unless I am pretending to be in an old Western). The most common construction in which I use the word is, "You're not obligated," by which I mean, "You're not forced to" or "No one's going to make you."
Since there's little evidence to support the former, let's stick to the latter school of thought. If the constraint is external, use obligate. If the constraint is internal (comes from your own mind), use oblige. And if you are writing a legally binding contract, get a dictionary of legal usage for pity's sake.
Tags: advice, ask miss smartypants, correction, good grammar costs nothing, grammar, usage, wots with english