Writing for Business

Sep 26 2012   1:23PM GMT

“Healthy” vs. “healthful” and the problem of audience standards

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?
With dinner guests due to arrive within the hour, I started browsing through Pinterest looking for quick and _______ recipes.
a. healthful
b. healthy

Answer: Either.


The old rule was that “healthy” meant “in good health” and “healthful” meant “promoting good health.” So a person could be healthy but the best a food could hope for was “healthful.” Now though, according to Merriam-Webster Online, “healthy” can be used as a synonym for “healthful.”

But there’s a price to pay: Some sticklers in the audience are bound to think your standards are too loosey-goosey. If your readers are likely to be old-school grammarians—and you’re not in a feather-ruffling mood— you can’t go wrong with “healthful.”  No, you can’t go wrong, exactly. Although non-stickler readers are apt to think you’re a bit of a fuddy-duddy. So you make your choice and you take your chances.

June Cassagrandes discusses the problem:

I think most people would say that “healthy diet” is more popular and more natural-sounding than “healthful diet.” So why does the L.A. Times use “healthful” and, just as interestingly, why do I often change “healthy” to “healthful” when I’m copy editing marketing pieces?

It’s because, in language, you have to pick your battles. And, when you do so, you have to take into account your reader and the context in which you’re writing. Readers who believe “healthful” can’t mean “healthy” notice what they believe to be an error. And errors, real or perceived, are distracting. So you, like the L.A. Times, may want to make the safe choice by opting for “healthful.”

Just be aware that you can’t please all the readers, all the time. I think I’m going to stick with “healthy.” A little benign feather-ruffling keeps the work day lively.

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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