fit for purpose / fit to purpose

 So I tweeted this recently...


(click on it to get the whole picture from Twitter)

Here's another view of how much more fit for purpose is used in BrE, and how relatively recent it is:

(click to enlarge)

But then Stephen P wrote to point out this tweet by an American with fit to purpose:



In searching for that tweet on Twitter, I discovered other Americans writing fit to purpose. Their numbers are dwarfed by the number of BrE speakers saying fit for purpose, but it's an interesting development! 






The moral of this story: prepositions change easily. That's because prepositions don't have much meaning in themselves. 

This one doesn't seem to have shown up yet on Ben Yagoda's Not One-Off Britishisms, but then again, is it a Britishism in the US? Did Americans pick up fit for purpose and change the preposition, or did they pick up the rarer to and make it their own? There's the second moral of this story: calling something a "Britishism" or an "Americanism" is a complicated business. (And if you want to know how complicated, I have a book to sell you...)

13 comments

  1. I have a feeling that "fit for purpose" was originally a technical legal term and that it gained popularity and entered general parlance when a politician used it about something or other in Parliament. Sorry to be so vague, but perhaps this will jog the memory of someone who will be able to fill in the blanks...

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  2. I think I've found it: It was John Reid in 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/5007148.stm

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  3. Hansard records only 10 uses of the phrase "not fit for purpose" in the House of Commons before Reid used the expression on 23 May 2006.
    https://hansard.parliament.uk/search/Contributions?startDate=1800-01-01&endDate=2006-05-22&searchTerm=%22not%20fit%20for%20purpose%22&house=Commons
    But after that date the number of uses suddenly explodes, with 40 in the remainder of that year, and 1441 in the time since.

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    1. (That was me! Forgot to type in my name)

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  4. The other part of my "feeling" also seems to have been correct: "Fit for purpose" is a legal term used in, for example, the Sale of Goods Act 1979:
    https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1979/54

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  5. I would disagree that it is a 'legal' term. Yes, something similar appears several times within the Sale of Goods Act, but not the actual words 'fit for purpose'. So we get 'fitness for any particular purpose' (eg section 14) and we get 'fit for that purpose' (eg section 14 again), but not the shortened version we are discussing.

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  6. A similar 'legal' term:
    In the UK, doctors may be assessed by the Fitness to Practise board of the General Medical Council - that is, for their fitness to practise medicine (or surgery, psychiatry etc).
    Because 'practice' is a noun in BrE, it would be incorrect to refer to the Fitness to Practice board, but I can just about understand the frequently-heard term Fitness for Practice.

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  7. I suspect that American usage of this term might have its origin in the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework. Fit for/to purpose and fit for/to use are terms used within it. I have found that such jargon sometimes filters out of IT into other areas of business, and from there to the public.

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  8. 'Fit for purpose' is an extremely important technical and legal term in my industry - engineering and construction. If you're spending tens or hundreds of millions on a new bridge / factory / power plant, you want it to work as specified in the contract (eg strong enough to carry a certain number of cars at a time / able to produce a certain amount of product or electricity). If it doesn't work, then you would say (or rather, your lawyers say) 'it's not fit for purpose so I no longer want it, give me my money back'. But since this is an extreme and expensive outcome, the lawyers writing the contract will usually delete the 'fit for purpose' clause and the parties have to negotiate how to fix the problem.

    Also, contractors buy insurance to cover their risks and insurers generally refuse to offer an insurance premium for 'fit for purpose' as it is such a high / expensive risk.

    So, in fact, whilst we often talk about something being 'fit for purpose' in my industry, I've rarely seen it as a contractual obligation... it's more of a wish than a reality.

    I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of the Ngram results are in relation to contracts - whether construction or sale of goods. I don't think it's a phrase I hear much outside of a work context.

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    1. Duh sorry - this is all from a BrE point of view!

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  9. Over the past few years I've heard it a lot in footballing discussions about team ownership. Like for teams that go into bankruptcy/administration. Another phrase that'll pop up in those discussions is the "fit and proper persons" test for club ownership, especially as more nation states and oligarchs buy football clubs as a form of sportswashing.

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  10. This is a comment capturing comment

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  11. In American English the past participle of 'fit' is 'fit', as opposed to our 'fitted'. I suggest that 'fit' in the American phrase 'fit to purpose' is a pp., and thus equivalent to 'fitted to [the] purpose'. That is why it seems euphonious to Americans, while it sounds wrong to British people, or at least to me.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)