Addictive Versus Addicting
Today's topic is addictive versus addicting.
Today we’re going to talk about the words addictive and addicting and whether they’re interchangeable. Some people say addicting isn’t a word. Are they right?
An unnamed caller asks:
My friends and I were having an argument the other day about whether TV watching was appropriate or not. And someone said it was addictive and another person said it was addicting, and then it broke off into whether the proper word was addictive or addicting. Could you please explain this whole thing for us?
Would you feel better if I told you that you and your friends aren't the only ones who are arguing about whether the right word is addictive or addicting? There is actually a raging debate, and there is even one unconfirmed account of a tobacco lobbyist trying to use the uncertainty to influence policy.
When to Use Addictive
Using addicting as an adjective isn’t wrong, but addictive is the safer choice.
If you want to be safe, stick with "Television is addictive." Addictive is an adjective, meaning it describes the noun. Remember Schoolhouse Rock? "He was a scary bear. He was a hairy bear. And we described him with adjectives." Hairy, scary, and addictive are adjectives. Schoolhouse Rock was addictive TV.
Now, there are definitely people who argue that addicting isn't a word. They say that addict is a noun, not a verb. However, I did the simple thing: I looked it up, and three out of four dictionaries included addicting—and for those of you who care, The American Heritage Dictionary lists it as a transitive verb (1) and the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary list it as an adjective that was first used in 1931 to describe morphine. (2, 3) Strangely, the main Dictionary.com entry lists nonaddicting as an adjective, but not addicting itself. (4)
A transitive verb is a verb that requires a direct object. An example could be Amy was addicting Steve to Scrabble®. Steve is the direct object of the verb addicting—he's the receiver of the action.
Addicting Is Like Charming and Insulting
Addicting is also the participle adjective of the verb to addict, just as charming and insulting are the participle adjectives of the verbs to charm and to insult. I don't think anyone would say that you can't describe a person as charming or a statement as insulting, and similarly it is OK to describe TV as addicting.
How to Tell If a Word Is an Adjective
A quick tip is that you can usually tell whether a word ending with -ing is acting like a verb or an adjective by testing whether you can add a modifier such as very in front of it. If you can't, then it is a verb; if you can, then it is a adjective. In the sentence Television is addicting, it would be fine to add very and say, “Television is very addicting,” so that’s your clue that it’s an adjective in this case.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage all have entries on the word addicted, but none of them address the use of addicting to mean addictive, leading me to believe that either it’s not a common peeve or none of them thinks it’s wrong. I also checked three smaller usage guides and The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook: none of these books addressed the topic either. If it were wrong to use addicting, I would expect to see it addressed in at least one of these book—but it’s not.
When to Use Addicting
After all this research, I hope you see that it is fine to say both that television is addictive and that television is addicting. Addicting is in most dictionaries; it’s been used as an adjective for about 80 years, and no style guide says it’s wrong. It’s not unprecedented for English to have two words that mean the same thing either. English is redundant that way—some of you will remember that just a few months ago I did a show about preventive and preventative and orient and orientate.
Nevertheless, as you will see in the comments on this article and in the comments on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary page, despite the evidence, some people feel strongly that you shouldn’t use addicting to mean “addictive.” If you have a blog and you want to avoid a flame war, stick with addictive. Addictive is also much more common than addicting (see the Google Ngram chart below), so using the word addictive is less likely to be distracting to your readers. My conclusion is that using addicting as an adjective isn’t wrong, but addictive is the safer choice.
When to Be Careful
I have two other points.
First, some people think addictive should only be used to refer to negative things, so to them, referring to Scrabble as addictive would be wrong; but in everyday life it's common to hear positive things referred to as addictive. (5)
Second, physicians who treat pain make an important distinction between patients who are addicted to drugs and patients who have a physical dependence on drugs. When people are physically dependent on drugs they get pain relief from taking the drugs and have withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drugs. People who are addicted to drugs exhibit behaviors such as hoarding drugs and taking drugs in ways they aren't prescribed or when they don't provide relief from pain. (6) So it isn't correct to say people are addicted to drugs solely because they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking them.
1. addict. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011.
2. addicting. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/274452?redirectedFrom=addicting#eid (accessed April 7, 20014).
3. addicting. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online, Springfield: Merriam-Webster. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/addicting (accessed April 7, 2014).
4. addicting. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/addicting (accessed: April 07, 2014).
5. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 1994, p. 27.
6. Savage, S., Covington, E.C., Heit, H. A., Hunt, J., Joranson, D., and Schnoll, S. H."Definitions Related to the Use of Opioids for the Treatment of Pain," American Academy of Pain Medicine, American Pain Society and American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2001. www.cpmission.com/main/addiction.html (accessed July 2, 2007)
- An excellent reference about participle adjectives
- FreeDictionary.com entry that includes addicting as a transitive verb
- Tobacco lobbyist reference
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