Purposely vs. purposefully

Purposely means on purpose. It is a synonym of intentionally. When you mean to do something, you do it purposely.

Purposefully means (1) with a sense of purpose, or (2) with determination. For example, when you are determined to ask your boss for a raise, you might walk into her office purposefully.

These adverbs are often understandably confused, and they are more or less interchangeable in some uses, especially where actions are both intentional and determined. For example, a football player who intentionally fouls another player does so purposely, but we can also say he does so purposefully if he does it with a sense of purpose or in a determined way. In uses such as this, the distinction can be blurred. Purposely is the broader and more common term, so it’s usually the safer choice.



It has also been claimed Natalie purposely forgot to include Sarah in her Oscar acceptance speech. [Stuff.co.nz]

I am being purposely vague with the details because you just have to read the delicious punch and counter-punch over at Eater. [Los Angeles Times]

There’s even the suggestion that telecommunications companies overcharge purposely so that they can offer a discount. [Globe and Mail]


Schoolchildren with a homemade banner march purposefully past a popcorn stand followed by a chain of exploding firecrackers. [Guardian]

He snapped open the shutter and then walked in front of the camera—in the shot—and strode purposefully around the scene. [New York Times]

Cora. purposefully took extra grounders at third during the spring. [Washington Times]

14 thoughts on “Purposely vs. purposefully”

  1. Sorry, but isn’t this a distinction without a difference? Your definitions for the two seem to mean the same thing. Is there any difference between “on purpose” and “with a sense of purpose”?

    • No. Imagine them used to describe a man walking.
      “He walked purposely,” says that he was walking, which was something he did intentionally. It would be a fairly unusual context in which this made sense; why would someone walk unintentionally?

      “He walked purposefully”, on the other hand, suggests that the man was walking with an air of determination. Not that he meant to be walking, but that he was walking as though his walking was resulting in, or would lead to, something being accomplished. 

  2. So, who invented “purposely”, and WHY did they find it necessary? I think “purposefully” is perfectly capable of doing everything that “purposely” does, and sounds/looks so much less like a poorly constructed word.

    • Have you understood the article at all? It is about how the two words have different meanings! And who are these people who have liked your comment?

      • He was expressing his opinion that “purposefully” should mean what “purposely” means, as “purposely” is a poorly constructed word, and I happen to agree.

      • I love purposely and purposefully and use them appropriately.
        Now for some controversial comments…
        I think “disqus_Wibyya7b2z” and “thegreatmoderator” are Americans (or have American education) and “grammarpolice” is probably British :-). Americans tend to reject or change what they don’t understand. I have an American background but I love the Brits when it comes to enriching a language.
        End of controversial comments. Now you can shout at me :-)

        • Well, I don’t know, you could be right, but for the record, I’m an American and I am with grammarpolice on this one. Furthermore, I like “purposely” better and I don’t find it to be a poorly constructed word, either.

    • I don’t know who invented “purposely,” but they did it approximately 365 years before “purposefully” was first used. The words are not synonyms.

    • I agree with disqus_Wibyya7b2z, but this needs explaining to get the nay-sayers on board. In English, traditionally we only allow adjectives to receive “ly” to become an adverb. (E.g. tradition -> traditional -> traditionally, NOT traditionly; fair -> fairly; poor -> poorly). We do have some examples where nouns can receive -ly, but they become adjectives not adverbs. (E.g. mother -> motherly; man -> manly; gnarl -> gnarly). Accordingly, “purposely” if anything should be an adjective form of “purpose” and should be used like “purposeful”. E.g. “That is a purposely young man.” which could mean a young man who has some sense of purpose. The only way we can really reconcile the use of “purposely” as an adverb is if we can somehow accept “purpose” as an adjective. E.g. “That was a purpose mistake”. Of course this is nonsense. The word “purposely” has therefore become quite an exceptional word — which I doubt was done purposely.

  3. Several of the comments seem to suggest that “purposely” was an unnecessary invention when “purposely” already existed with the same meaning. The OED tells a different story: entries for “purposely” start before 1500 and include Shakespeare. “Purposefully” turned up around 1850, meaning exactly what the article above says it means.

    I suspect that Durango_Ram is right about the nationality of the “purposely” deniers, though my generation of Americans did not grow up with the current colloquial use of “purposefully” as a synonym of “intentionally.”

    As a linguist I had to laugh at the complaint that “purposely” is a “poorly constructed word.” Correct or not, that judgment has no bearing at all on whether a word and its meaning belong in standard English. If speakers of a language understand a word in more or less the same way and find it useful, it can be part of the standard language no matter how it is constructed.

      • Agreed, something else I like to point out to those copping the “language evolves” excuse, is that unlike biology where the concept of devolution really hasn’t any meaning (reproductive success is THE sole criterion), language does have the potential to become debased (pidgins, creoles, etc.).


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