Purposely vs. Purposefully

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between purposely and purposefully? The meanings are similar, both referring to intention, but they have distinct connotations.

Purposely means “deliberately,” as in, “I purposely broke the vase Aunt Hermione gave me because it’s ugly, and now I don’t have to use it.” Purposefully, by contrast, means “with determination, intention, or meaning,” as in “She purposefully pursued the solution to the puzzle, working on it through the night.” Both words are adverbial forms of purpose, ultimately derived from the Latin term proponere, meaning “to propose”; purpose can be a noun, as in “He doesn’t feel that he has a purpose in life,” or, rarely, a verb, as in “He purposed to complete the project but left it unfinished.”

Adjectival forms of purpose are purposeful, meaning “filling a plan or a purpose,” as in “He has a purposeful, no-nonsense air about him,” and its antonym purposeless, a synonym of aimless or meaningless, as in “She had until then lived what seemed a purposeless existence.” Another adjective stemming from purpose is the rare word purposive, meaning “useful but not designed not planned,” such as in the case of unconscious gestures or facial expressions.

Other adjectives based on purpose are the hyphenated phrases purpose-built and purpose-made, which both mean “designed and built for a specific purpose,” as well as the self-explanatory all-purpose, dual-purpose, general-purpose, and multipurpose.

Idioms that include purpose are the adverbial phrases “for all practical purposes,” meaning “essentially,” as in “For all practical purposes, the plan has been rejected, and “on purpose,” meaning “deliberately,” as in “They did that on purpose to annoy us.”

Two related terms are apropos, from the French expression à propos, meaning “to the purpose” and synonymous with “as regards” or “to the point,” serving as a way to transition between two interrelated subjects, and “ad hoc,” a phrase borrowed from Latin that means “for this (purpose)” and refers, for example, to a committee formed for a single, short-term purpose.

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