Q&A: Addictive vs addicting

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're addicted to…

Q: Hey AWC, I’m having trouble right now with two words in particular.

A: Are they “I’m sorry”?

Q: Huh?

A: That ice cream you took was clearly labelled in the office freezer…

Q: Oh that. Yeah, well. Um. No, the words I’m having trouble with are “addictive” and “addicting”. I recently read a piece that said that something was “very addicting”. I always use “addictive” – is there a difference?

A: Well actually there is no difference. They’re both adjectives that mean “causing or likely to cause someone to become addicted” – to a substance or activity. However, one is more legitimate than the other.

Q: Oh wow. My mum used to say that about me and my brother…

A: Ah.. okay. So while most of the world’s dictionaries include “addicting”, there are some notable exceptions – including Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary.

Q: So they both mean the same thing, but it’s better to use “addictive”?

A: It will result in fewer bar-room fights with grammar boffins, yes.

Q: So hang on. Why have TWO words meaning the same thing??

A: Have you met English?

Q: Ugh, yes.

A: You see, the verb “addict” or “addicted” – to devote or give up oneself to a habit or occupation – was around since the 1530s. The modern adjective didn’t arrive till 1815, and the idea of an “addict” as in a noun appeared thanks to morphine in 1909.

Q: So “addictive” is quite recent?

A: Yes. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the idea of narcotics being “addictive” caught on. “Addicting” as a verb appeared at the same time – e.g. “I’m addicting myself to chocolate” although it’s never been very common.

Q: So if someone says “this TV show is very addicting”, are they wrong?

A: Not entirely, but it’s definitely considered more informal to use “addicting” as an adjective when there’s a perfectly good word in “addictive” waiting to take its place. One distinction many use is to assign “addictive” to medically addictive substances and “addicting” to more everyday things.

Q: Examples?

A: “Jogging can be very addicting” versus “heroin is very addictive”.

Q: That’s so sexist. Male heroes can be addictive too, you know…

A: Okay, well how about “ice cream is so addictive that some people steal it from communal freezers”…

Q: Okay okay, I’m sorry – I’ll buy some more!

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