British Culture & Expressions

“To oblige” vs “to obligate”

If you have never read Emma by Jane Austen, I highly recommend it. The vocabulary is advanced, but it will challenge you and that is what you want to boost your English. You will notice the use of the verb "oblige" which is not the same than "obligate". Do you know why?

Obligate and Oblige

Are verbs that mean required to do something, but the only verb form of “obligation” that is traditionally considered correct is “oblige” not “obligate”. Considering this, if you only use obliged instead of “obligated” you can avoid making a mistake. The form “obligated” is almost never heard in formal British English, and it is considered to be an Americanism. However, in colloquial American and British English it can be heard in place of “obliged”.

Obligate: Legal and moral connotations.

Originated from late Middle English (as an adjective in the sense ‘bound by law’). From Latin obligatus, past participle of obligare. As a verb,  obligated is the past tense of the noun obligate which means require or compel (someone) to undertake a legal or moral duty.

Oblige

Originated from late Middle English (as an adjective in the sense ‘bound by oath’). From Old French obliger, from Latin obligare, from ob-‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’. Having a binding obligation. In this sense, it can be replaced by “obligated”, but the word “oblige” has two different meanings. Obliged can also have a meaning similar to gratefull like in Emma (Jane Austen). It is used to express thanks to somebody who did something for you. It expresses your perceived moral obligation to do something in return. In this case, is not normally replaced by “obligated”.

Emma represents a nexus of obliging, obliged and obligation.

Obliging: Happy and ready to do favours for others.

Oblige: (third-person singular simple present obligespresent participle obligingsimple past and past participle obliged)

  1. (transitive) To constrain someone by force or by social, moral or legal means. I am obliged to report to the police station every week.
  2. (transitive) To do someone a service or favour (hence, originally, creating an obligation). He obliged me by not parking his car in the drive.
  3. (intransitive) To be indebted to someone.  I am obliged to you for your recent help.
  4. (intransitive) To do a service or favour.  The singer obliged with another song.

Obligation: Borrowed from Old French obligacion, from Latin obligatio, obligationem, from obligatum (past participle of obligare), from ob- (to) + ligare (to bind), from Proto-Indo-European *leig- (to bind).

  1. The act of binding oneself by a social, legal, or moral tie to someone.
  2. A social, legal, or moral requirement, duty, contract, or promise that compels someone to follow or avoid a particular course of action.
  3. A course of action imposed by society, law, or conscience by which someone is bound or restricted.
  4. (law) A legal agreement stipulating a specified payment or action; the document containing such agreement.

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