The Difference Between Being Done And Being Finished

A linguistic battle for the ages.

My memories of second grade are hazy at best. I vaguely recall making a shoebox diorama for social studies and practicing D’Nealian handwriting with a thick pencil, but beyond that, it’s all a bit foggy. There is one phrase, though, that Mrs. Rowell seared into my brain at age seven, and it has camped out in my hippocampus (or wherever your brain holds onto life-shaping memories) ever since: “A cake is done,” she would tell us. “You are finished.” Ever since, I haven’t heard someone declare they’re “done” without cringing just a bit. What would Mrs. Rowell say! But after a little online digging, I’m having to reconsider my negative reaction.

1950s classroom teacher with students

George Marks

What Is The Difference Between Done and Finished?

The short answer? There is no difference between “being done” and “being finished.” Grammar experts note that “done” and “finished” can be used interchangeably. Merriam-Webster (the dictionary on which our Southern Living copy desk relies) even uses one to characterize the other (they define “finished” as “entirely done”) and lists the two words as synonyms. 

Now, before you crucify me for publicly outing my beloved second-grade teacher as having been wrong, let’s navigate the words’ nuances. Mrs. Rowell may have been a stickler, but her conviction about the difference between the actions of a seven-year-old and a cake wasn’t unfounded. In his 1965 book, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, Theodore Bernstein (who was once an assistant managing editor of The New York Times and a journalism professor at Columbia) wrote, “The word [done] should not be used in good writing to mean finished or completed. It is proper to say “the roast is done,” but this does not mean it is finished; it means the roast is sufficiently cooked.” He later changed his mind on this, but I doubt he reached out to Mrs. Rowell to inform her.

While they acknowledge Bernstein’s original and later stances, our friends at Merriam-Webster established that the interchangeable use of “done” and “finished” has taken place since the 14th century, and that hasn’t changed—nor will it change—on the grammar front.

Even so, Merriam-Webster concedes that there is a camp of folks who believe it’s a matter of manners: “finished” simply sounds more gracious than “done.” Say the two phrases back to back, and you very well may agree. And while I’ll give it to the dictionary folk that “being done” and “being finished” are linguistically the same thing, I’m with Mrs. Rowell on this one: I finished this story in the nick of time; my pound cake is done!

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