Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Need Addictionary!

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2010

Doug has been pushing for us to let him play rated-M first-person shooter video games. It’s not enough that he gets to play these games when he visits his friends, whose parents (he has often told us) almost all let their kids play them. No, he wants them here in our house, where he can play them any time he wants, and where they’ll generate new conflicts when it comes to whether Adam can play them too.

Ah, the good times he and his friends have had playing these games! There was that sleepover birthday party he went to last month, when they played video games, drank Mountain Dew, and watched Jackass on TV all night. (Literally: There was no lights-out time, not even an exhilaratingly late one like one or two AM.) It was so funny when his character managed to sneak up behind another one and shoot him point blank in the head! And when they threw a sticky grenade at one of the characters and he couldn’t get rid of it in time, watching the expression on that character’s face as he died on the instant replay cracked everybody up.

Details like these weren’t helping Doug’s case, so now he talks more about how some game has killing, but not so much blood. And how he’s learned from a friend that the only reason some other game got an M is a single sex scene. And how you automatically lose some games if you kill an innocent character or someone on your team.

And why is it that rated-M games have become so important to Doug? Well, he’s just discovered, through playing them at friends’ houses, that he really likes first-person shooters. “They’re addicting games,” he says.


In several conversations about video games, the word addicting has come out of Doug’s mouth, so I finally had to ask: Did some of his friends say addicting and others addictive, or did most of them say addicting? Doug didn’t have to think about it: “They all do.” He added that there was also a popular web site called

I was curious how long addicting had existed alongside addictive, so I did some Internet searching, and one of the first things I found was that Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) had done an episode on this topic. Go ahead and read it or listen to it. I’ll wait, and pick up where she leaves off. (But don’t make me wait too long. If you want to read or listen to the episode I wrote for her that came out last Friday, do that some other time, OK?)

So now that you’re back, you know that Fogarty wrote:

Addicting is the participle adjective of the verb to addict, just as annoying is the participle adjective of the verb to annoy. I don’t think anyone would say that you can’t describe someone as annoying, and similarly it is OK to describe TV as addicting.

Right: Addicting is just a present participle, like amazing, boring, interesting, fulfilling, frightening, or Fogarty’s example, annoying. So why should there even be a controversy about it? Why should this episode have attracted comments like this one from a commenter going by Drewmass?

I love that this is debated at all, let alone this hotly! For the first twenty or so years of my life, I never heard “addicting” used as an adjective, so to me, it sounds really, really wrong. It’s like saying someone is “attracting” when you clearly mean that they’re “attractive.” I agree that language should change over time, but using “addicting” as an adjecting — uh, adjective — is a little too inventing for my taste.

Or this one from a commenter named Trish, which expresses a similar thought, but more confrontationally:

the only way the american language “evolves” is when less educated people start beginning to adopt words and misusing them. eventually become more widely accepted by an ignorant society. it’s addictive. i will say that i can see how “addicting” could be used as a transitive verb, but definitely not as an adjective.

The only reason I can see for there being any question about addicting at all is the fact that addictive was already doing the job that addicting is doing now. But why is that bad? Why isn’t there room in this town for the both of them?

There are two problems. First is something I mentioned in my column at Visual Thesaurus about awesome and awful: “Even today, when two words share just one meaning, speakers look for, imagine, or create meaning differences.” And if they can’t create a difference, it seems, then one of the words will have to go. This tendency has been even more pronounced in people who have made it their business to write about the English language. As Jan Freeman noted in a recent column, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s,

[i]f two words overlapped in sense — admission and admittance, avoid and avert, generally and usually, hurry and hasten, partially and partly — some usage adviser would come up with a rule to guide the choice.

In fact, it has happened with addictive/addicting. A Charles Carson left this comment on the Grammar Girl episode, which posits a distinction between the two words that (I suspect) he just made up on the spot:

I would argue that “addictive” and “addicting” are both acceptable, but they have different meanings. “Addictive” is an adjective used to describe something that causes an addition to itself, as in “an additive drug” or “television is addictive.” “Addicting” is derived from the verb “addict,” which means ‘to cause someone to have an addiction to something else’, as in GG’s example “Amy was addicting Steve to Scrabble.” Therefore, “addicting” is only correct as a predicate adjective if it’s describing a person or thing that gets someone addicted to something else. For example, one wouldn’t say “Cigarettes addict children” but would say “Tobacco companies addict children to cigarettes.” Therefore, “Amy is addicting” in that “she addicted Steve to Scrabble” but “Scrabble is addictive.” It is possible that this subtle distinction will be or already has been lost.

I even entertained the idea of a meaning distinction myself, wondering if Doug and his friends might use addicting for (putatively) harmless things like video games, chocolate, or perhaps love, and addictive for drugs. But when I asked him, he said no, they’d use addicting across the board.

The other problem with addicting is what linguists call morphological blocking. If a word can be derived by regular morphological processes (affixes, compounding, etc.), but a word with the same root with the desired meaning already exists, then the derivation is blocked. For example, even though comfortable could in theory give rise to comfortability or comfortableness, it doesn’t, because the noun comfort already exists.

Make that, the derivation is usually blocked. Sometimes it goes through anyway, as addicting shows.

However, of addictive and addicting, which really came first? The source verb, addict, entered the language in the late 1500s, so it would have been sometime after that. The earliest attestation in the OED for both addictive and addicting is in a single citation from 1939:

1939 Harper’s Mag. Nov. 644 A chemico-pharmacological search for non-addicting drugs to replace morphine and the other addictive ones.

The Google News Archive has earlier results; its earliest attestation for addictive is from an 1853 New York Times article:

Now these truly addictive results having been so long conceded, it is not strange that good people would put an end to the iniquitous sale and abuse of …

As for addicting, it usually appears as a reflexive verb in prior to the 20th century, as in “addicting himself to opium”, in places where we’d usually use the phrase getting addicted these days. (Maybe there’s something interesting to say here about societal opinions of personal responsibility back then. Or about better understanding of addiction now.) The first attestation of addicting as an adjective that I’ve found is just a couple of years before the OED‘s, in a 1937 article in the Hartford Courant:

Of itself, Marihuana is not an addicting narcotic. (link)

Prefixed with non, it appears a few years earlier still, in The New York Times in 1934:

scientists are pushing ahead in efforts to achieve a non-addicting substitute for morphine (link)

So addicting is pretty clearly the newcomer here, as people have thought. But is it suddenly gaining popularity, and displacing addictive? The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 94 tokens of addicting from 1990 to the present. Of them, 28 are from 1990-1994; 36 from 1995-1999; 15 from 2000-2004; and 15 from 2005-2009. Addictive, for comparison, has about 300-400 hits for each of those periods, so addicting is nowhere near overtaking it. Furthermore, if anything, addicting has been used less in the last ten years than it was in the decade before that. It probably just seems like more than that because it’s more noticeable: a case of the Frequency Illusion.

Still, I’m left with the question of why speakers would have created the word addicting. Why didn’t morphological blocking nip it in the bud? Taking a wild guess, I’ll say that maybe speakers were exposed more to the word addicted than to the word addictive. With the word addicted, you can deduce the existence of the verb addict, and from there get to addicting. If you have hypotheses of your own, let’s hear them. And which word do you use? Do you use both?

20 Responses to “I Need Addictionary!”

  1. The Ridger said

    I say “addictive” and I’d save “addicting” for purely verbal uses. But I’d be willing to be that you’re right and Doug, et al, are backforming “addicting” from “addict” and/or “addicted” and haven’t encountered “addictive”. You can’t be blocked by something you haven’t heard.

  2. Hannah said

    I agree with everything The Ridge said.

    But my q: Have you written any articles on morphological blocking, or do you have a link to a good discussion of it? Morphology is not an area I know much about, so I’ve never come across the term before.

    • Neal said

      Here’s the definition and a few more examples from the Lexicon of Linguistics.

      • Ran said

        But that link doesn’t quite agree with your entry. By the rule it describes, “comfortableness” is possible (and indeed, it’s well attested; but then, so is “comfortability”, albeit not to the same extent).

      • Neal said

        This is actually in reply to Ran, but it looks like the maximum depth of embedded replies is 2. Anyway, you’re right: My understanding of blocking needed a bit of tightening. So I’m not sure if what I called blocking in this post is the same thing as what Aronoff called blocking. but in any case, I do wonder how addicting got a foothold at all, given the existence of addictive, and my tentative conclusion is unchanged: Speakers who created addicting must not have been sufficiently exposed to addictive for the blocking (or whatever it should be called) to kick in.

      • Hannah said

        Thank you!

      • GPHemsley said

        Totally off-topic, but you should be able to change the comment nesting here:

  3. Jan Freeman said

    Thanks for linking, Neal! But in that column,I actually dated the most feverish period of synonym-separating from c. 1860-1960, though obviously it went on both earlier and later. (My guy Ambrose Bierce was a devout practitioner; his “necessaries” vs. “necessities” distinctions could fry your frontal lobes.)

  4. Shelagh said

    Although I too suspect Charles Carson of making up his distrinction, I quite like it. I find the word, “addicting” jarring to my senses.

  5. Barrie said

    In spite of some of the OED citations, ‘addictive’ is the usual word in contemporary British English. Is the formation of alternative words with the same meaning perhaps more a feature of American English?

  6. Ian said

    It seems to me that the origin of this non-standard usage would come the same way as toddlers saying something like “I runned real fast”—using basic rules when no further experience (of a construction like addictive) is present.

    However, there is another distinction that I was surprised not to see mentioned—“addicting” connotes agency and is therefore a stronger, or more active, term (stronger language tends to be favored in colloquial speech—this is also why people tend to use “literally” as a superlative), whereas addictive is a more passive construction.

    • Ran said

      I agree about “addicting” connoting agency. I use “addictive” exclusively, but I’ve known a lot of “addicting” users, and I find it much less unnatural when it describes a game that’s actually trying to addict you (anthropomorphization of software being more or less a fait accompli) than when it describes a drug you’re taking.

  7. GPHemsley said

    All this talk about addict is making me feel like it’s not a real word… but that’s a digression.

    The words addictive and addicting are so similar that I’m have a hard time figuring out which one I use, but I’m pretty sure I mostly use the latter. However, I think I would use the former with regards to drugs. So I think I agree that the use of addicting is actually idiomatic in some sense, because the things you would use it for (e.g. video games or candy [usually]) are not actually substances you become addicted to. You just like them a lot a lot. (Pardon my reduplication.)

    Also, am I the only one for whom “Amy was addicting Steve to Scrabble.” gets a big fat asterisk in front of it?

  8. GPHemsley said

    I was reading the newspaper today, and I came across a sentence that used the word “supportive” (of a wedding, I think), whereas I may have used “supporting”.

    Is this a more common phenomenon?

  9. […] you remember Doug’s campaign to get some rated-M first-person shooter games. Well, now he has one. He’s been playing Metal […]

  10. i can play scrabble all day long cause i love to play with words and rearrange them for higher points ‘`”

  11. James Michael said

    In the case of the video game website, maybe was already taken. This would “force” a person to use a similar word or spelling of a word instead.

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