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Is It Purposely or Purposefully?

It is pretty easy to confuse purposely and purposefully. Both are standard English words with similar origins. Both words are adverbs, and they have comparable definitions. Never fear: we will elucidate how to use each word correctly.

Differentiating Purposely and Purposefully

The definition of purposely is “with intention” and “on purpose.” It is the antonym of accidentally.

So, when you write, “Cybill purposely left the keys where her boarder could see them,” you are saying that she intentionally left the keys where she did. She wants the boarder to be able to find them.

On the other hand, purposefully means “displaying determination.” It is an adverb showing that an action is full of purpose. The antonym of purposefully is carelessly. Consider writing a sentence about an individual with incredible resolve:

Eleanor Roosevelt purposefully denounced Senator McCarthy’s anti-democratic tactics.

Ms. Roosevelt spoke out against McCarthy with determination, and the use of purposefully reflects her resolve. However, something can be done purposefully, even if it is not an act of historic importance. For example:

Erin purposefully explained her catering order to ensure that the food would arrive as requested.

Erin’s interaction with the caterer was purposeful because she wanted to make sure her order was taken down correctly.

A Quick Tip for Telling Purposely and Purposefully Apart

To ensure that you always use purposely and purposefully correctly, remember this tip:

  • Doing something purposely means you did it on purpose.
  • Doing something purposefully means the action was full of purpose.

Similar Meanings

There is a particular kind of reflexive grammar snob who convinces themselves that a perfectly correct word is always wrong. Such is the case with purposely. These folks will always insist the purposefully is the right word choice.

Of course, as we have already established, purposely is always the correct choice when you intend to say an action was intentional. However, there are sentences where choosing between the adverbs purposely and purposefully can be difficult.

Here is an example of such a sentence:

The spy sneakily, yet purposely, slipped the package into the secret compartment.

To understand why purposely is correct in this sentence instead of purposefully, we need to consider its relationship to the other adverb in the sentence. To say that the spy did something sneakily (i.e., seeking to hide the action) means that they could not do it purposefully (i.e., displaying determination). These two adverbs are antithetical. However, the spy could do something both sneakily and purposely. It is often a spy’s job to do something intentionally and secretly.

However, there are cases where purposely and purposefully mean nearly the same thing. For example:

Our smartphone’s interface is purposely developed to be intuitive.

The use of purposely in the sentence above implies that the intuitiveness of the smartphone’s platform is intentional. It is not an incidental bonus of other development choices.

Now, consider this sentence with purposefully:

Our smartphone’s interface is purposefully developed to be intuitive.

This sentence’s meaning is nearly identical to the first. Yet, there is still a subtle difference. Using purposefully places emphasis not on the smartphone interface but on the developers. This sentence now implies that the people behind the smartphone worked intently to ensure its interface is intuitive.

The sentences have a similar meaning, but they are not precisely the same.

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By Audrey Horwitz

Audrey Horwitz holds a master's degree in communication and a bachelor's degree in business administration. She has worked with numerous companies as a content editor including Speechly, Compusignal, and Wordflow. Audrey is a prolific content writer with hundreds of articles published for Medium, LinkedIn, Scoop.It, and Article Valley.

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