'Healthy' vs. 'Healthful'

What do you do when you know a usage is right but there’s a good chance your reader thinks it’s wrong?

I struggle with this a lot in my writing and editing and it comes up in my reading, too.  For example, I’ve noticed that the Los Angeles Times Health section often chooses “healthful” over “healthy,” even though they don’t have to.

 If case you’re not familiar with the issue, traditionalists have long argued that “healthful” means “promoting good health” while “healthy” means “in good health.” So a person can be healthy but a diet or lifestyle cannot. It must be healthful.

If that was ever true, it’s not now.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary:  healthy. adj. 3. healthful (http://www.yourdictionary.com/healthy)

Merriam-Webster’s online. healthy. adj. 3. conducive to health (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/healthy)

 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.”

Context counts. If I were editing articles for a well-respected major publication, I would choose “healthy diet” instead of “healthful diet.” But much of my editing work is for smaller, less respected, sometimes advertorial publications. Readers might assume, rightly so, that editors and writers of smaller publications are less knowledgeable than wordsmiths working for the big boys. So they might be quicker to assume that a “healthy diet” in one of my publications is the result of ignorance and not a choice.

That's why, often, I cave in to the misinformed sticklers and change all "healthy" to "healthful."

6 Responses to “'Healthy' vs. 'Healthful'”

  1. So to follow your usage logic, the thesaurus will become obsolete as we eliminate words from vocabulary. We should just go along with the 'dumbing down' of society! Culture eventually, emoting sounds and groaning at each other like cave people again.

  2. Food can be healthful unless is squirming or galloping RIGHT NOW..(or growing as a plant). A friend can be helpful if they give assistance. A friend cannot be "helpy".
    Also you committed a horrid grammar gaff. it's If that WERE ever true, it is not now. .not the hillbilly version.."If it wuz (duh) ever true..etc.. Hicky grammar, friend.

  3. You distracted me with that Was vs were gaff. I meant to explain that food can only be "healthy" if it is currently alive at the time it is being eaten. Ugh. Otherwise, with no exceptions, it is healthful.

  4. Hi, Tom! For someone who is complaining about grammar, you sure make a lot of mistakes!

    1. It is a bad analogy to compare "healthful" and "healthy" to "helpful" and "helpy", since "healthy" is actually a word and "helpy" is not.

    2. Both "was" and "were" could be correct in this instance, although the meaning of the sentence changes. "Was" is the past indicative tense, which can in fact be used in a clause beginning with "if." "Were" is the past subjunctive tense, which in this specific case would merely suggest a higher level of doubt that the clause is true.

    3. An ellipsis requires three dots, not two. And when it comes after an abbreviation like "etc." you really can't use only two.

    4. Your capitalization is random.

    5. You don't close your quotation before saying, "Hicky grammar, friend."

    That said, you are right that food that is not alive cannot be described as "healthy."

  5. Tom is wrong on many things and the person correcting Tom is wrong on a couple things:
    1. "was ever true" is correct. June is talking about the past, not a hypothetical scenario. Using "were" in this context would not make sense.

    2. "Healthy food" is correct. And more importantly, that is the entire point of the original post. You (both of you!) should not declare it wrong unless you have some evidence to present. That is unhelpful and highly jerkish. Also, regarding evidence, the fact that that's what you learned in high school English definitely, positively, DOES NOT COUNT. Because your high school English teacher is not an expert, did not cite any primary sources when telling you this, and may have only been half-literate herself.

  6. It's grammar "gaffe," not "gaff."

    Unless "grammar" is a kind of fish and a "grammar gaff" is a hook used to pull grammars out of the water.