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Healthy vs. Healthful

A few months ago, a reader wrote to commend me for what she called my correct use of the term "healthful." Yet just last week, a different reader suggested that my use of that word where others would simply write "healthy" was trendy and, frankly, a bit much.

I'm always up for a healthy -- or is it healthful? -- debate. But this time I feel I must take sides: the first reader was right.

My understanding has been that the word "healthful" means "contributing to the state of good health," whereas "healthy" means "enjoying the state of good health." Hence: "Eating healthful foods can help make a person healthy."

My trusty Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) supports my stance: It defines "healthful" as "beneficial to health of body or mind" and "healthy" as "enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit."

And so does Post copyeditor Thomas Graham, who has steered me through many a grammatical thicket in my career. Tom assures me that my use of the words is "not trendy; it's accurate," adding that it's "not always followed as rigorously in the Post as it might."

Why is this so important to me? Because in reporting -- perhaps particularly health reporting -- getting things right matters. If I'm not willing to sweat what some might deem the small stuff, how can readers trust that I'm sufficiently sweating the big stuff?

Your turn. Is using the word "healthful" pretentious? Do these things matter much?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Life's Big Questions  
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Finally someone has addressed one of my biggest irritations.
People have replaced the word "healthful" with the word "healthy."
I almost never hear the word healthful used these days.
My mother always told me that I was healthy and that food was healthful. Of course, there is always the linguist's argument that if 90% of the people use a word "incorrectly" the usage then becomes common and therefore "correct." I would not call using the language correctly "pretentious."

Posted by: Dipsy | January 23, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"Healthful foods" sounds much more correct to my ear than 'healthy.' Stick to your guns.

Posted by: DupontJay | January 23, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

It's a sign of the end of times when proper use of the English language is "trendy."
The misuse of "healthy" drives me nuts.
Another one is "nauseous." This word means causing nausea, not feeling sick.

Posted by: VaLGaL | January 26, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I agree - healthy is a state of health, healthful contributes to good health. Kudos to you for Smartening Up your readership instead of sheep-like following the Dumbing Down trend. Using our native language appropriately isn't pretentious, it's accurate. If people don't see words used correctly, how are they going to learn to do it? Thank you for this little tidbit. - A Stickler

Posted by: IslandLady | January 27, 2009 5:44 AM | Report abuse

Next up, could we tackle the issue of starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions, my pet peeve? (Can I get therapy for this?)

Posted by: IslandLady | January 27, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse

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