It seems to me that the adjective well-intended is properly applied to an action, whereas well-intentioned is properly applied to an actor.

For example, suppose John observes that Mary's car is dirty and, meaning to be helpful, washes it for her. We would properly describe John as "well-intentioned", and the washing as "well-intended" (nevermind that he unknowingly used an abrasive brush and scratched up the car's finish). Conversely, it would be improper usage to describe John as "well-intended", or the washing as "well-intentioned".

In other words:

  • well-intended = done with good intentions
  • well-intentioned = acting with good intentions

Agree or disagree?

  • An intention is an idea that you intend (plan) to carry out. – Misti Feb 9 '15 at 20:57
  • Um ... aren't you supposed to put the answer in an answer? – SamB Feb 9 '15 at 23:59
  • To the community: Should I recast this Question as purely open-ended (i.e. How should these be used?), and convert the proposed distinction I described above into an Answer? – jdmc Feb 10 '15 at 17:48
  • I think that you're asking an interesting question here (obviously); but in order to avoid having it challenged as "primarily opinion-based" (that is, as soliciting opinions about the core issue), you might consider expressing the question at the end of your question text as something like this: "What difference (if any) is there in current usage of well-intentioned versus well-intended?" – Sven Yargs Feb 12 '15 at 4:51

To put together a data-based, descriptive (rather than prescriptive) answer to this question, I looked at two blocks of Google Books matches for "well intended" versus "well intentioned": one for the period 1803–1817, and the other for the period 1998–2008.

Google Books results for 'well-intentioned' and 'well-intended' in 1803–1817

The 1803–1817 block for "well intentioned" turns up the phrases "well-intentioned subjects [of the king]" (1810), "well-intentioned Prince" (1814), "well-intentioned men" (1817); but also "well-intentioned advice" (1803), "well-intentioned visit" (1810),"well-intentioned purpose" (and "well-intentioned suggestion," from the same 1817 book).

The 1803–1817 block for "well intended" yields matches for "well intended Tract" (1811), "well-intended Assistant" (namely, The Tutor's Assistant, a book, 1811), "well-intended object" (1811), "well-intended purpose" (1811), "well intended designs" (1812), "well-intended services" (1812), "well-intended offices" (1812), "well-intended combinations" (1812), "well-intended bequests" (1813), "well-intended raillery" (1813), "well intended blow" (1813), "well intended enterprise" (1813), "well intended deed" (1814), "well intended line" (1814), "well-intended kindness" (1815), "well-intended advice" (1815), "well intended chastisements" (1815), "well-intended presents" (1815), "well-intended aim" (1815), "well intended bill" (1815), "well-intended charities" (1815), "well-intended labours" (1816), "well-intended exertion" (1816), and "well-intended project" (1816).

The results for this period thus show an even split (three and three) between animate and inanimate things in the application of "well-intentioned," but a complete dedication (twenty-four out of twenty-four) to inanimate things in the application of "well-intended." These outcomes do not suggest that "well-intentioned" was understood in the early 1800s to refer only to animate things, but they do suggest that "well-intended" was understood to apply only to inanimate things.

Google Books results for 'well-intentioned' and 'well-intended' in 1998–2008

The 1998–2008 block for "well intentioned" produces instances of the phrases "well-intentioned racist" (1998), "well-intentioned supporter" (2001), "well-intentioned Machiavellians" (2005), "well-intentioned youth worker" (2005), "well-intentioned ruler" (2005), "well-intentioned parents" (2005), "well-intentioned spiritual brethren" (2005), "well-intentioned respondent" (2006), "well-intentioned reformers" (2006), "well-intentioned revolutionaries" (2006), "well-intentioned visitors" (2006), "well-intentioned persons" (2007), "well-intentioned people" (2008), "well-intentioned institutions" (referring to the people within them who "know how to get money made," 2008), and "well-intentioned scientists" (2008); but also "well-intentioned touch" (1998), "well-intentioned policy" (1999), "well-intentioned approach" (1999), "well-intentioned actions" (2002), "well-intentioned feedback" (2005), "well-intentioned attempts" (2005), "well-intentioned gift" (2006), "well-intentioned response" (2007), and "well-intentioned merger" (2008). In addition, one book from 2006 uses the phrase with both animate "well-intentioned ones [that is, people]" and inanimate (well-intentioned protection") things. Another book from 2007 does the same thing, with "well-intentioned but ignorant policies," "well-intentioned ideas," and a "well-intentioned organization" (meaning the people in it). The example that calls policies "ignorant" is interesting because that adjective, too, is often thought of as an attribute of animate things.

The 1998–2008 block for "well intended" gives us "well-intended prescription" (2000), "well-intended philosophy" (2001), "well-intended projects" (2001), "well-intended parental caring" (2001), "well-intended halfness" (2002), "well-intended ideas" (2002), "well-intended Bill C-68" (2002), "well-intended policy" (2002), "well-intended laws" (2002), "well-intended displays" (and later "well-intended conduct," 2004), "well-intended actions" (2006), "well-intended attempt" (2006), "well-intended research design" (2006), "well-intended regulations" (2008); but also "well-intended people" (1998). Although the one person-oriented instance of "well-intended" looks like a freak occurrence in this set, I noticed several similar instances where "well-intended" was attached to animate things in results from the 1970s, 1980s, and earlier 1990s.

The results for the recent block of Google Books matches work out to seventeen animate and eleven inanimate objects connected to "well-intentioned," and one animate and fourteen inanimate objects connected to "well-intended." These results indicate that many writers (and their editors) probably make the same distinction between "well-intentioned" for animate things and "well-intended" for inanimate things that the OP does. Still, it seems clear that "well-intentioned" has always (since 1803, anyway) been applied to a significant degree to both animate and inanimate things, while the preference for limiting "well-intended" to inanimate things has always been quite strong.

Relative frequency of the two terms in Google Books results, 1803–2008

Also worth pointing out is the change in relative frequency of the two adjectives over the 205 years from 1803 to 2008. An Ngram chart of "well intentioned" (blue line) versus "well intended" (red line) shows a significant trend in favor of "well intentioned" during that time period:

In this regard, I note that the Ngram graph cited in vahokie02's answer is quite misleading because it tracks not "well intentioned" versus "well intended" but "well - intentioned" versus "well - intended" (where the hyphens may be functioning as minus signs). Whatever those hyphens may be doing, Ngram cannot handle hyphenated words in a consistent and reliable way. A further sign that it is struggling with the search terms in vahokie02's graph is that it doesn't provide any searchable matches beneath the graph; in contrast, the Ngram graph that my Ngram chart above is based on provides two rows of searchable results, one for each search term. I have found that an Ngram search that omits hyphens from what would normally be hyphenated search terms nevertheless returns results that include both hyphenated and open versions of the search terms.

  • I'm a speaker of AmE, and as far as I can recall, I've personally only rarely encountered well-intentioned, yet found well-intended in common use. Could there be an AmE–BrE distinction here? Perhaps speakers of BrE are much more likely to use well-intentioned to describe both actors and acts? – jdmc Feb 10 '15 at 17:53
  • I can't offer any firm evidence on this, but I would speculate that applying "well-intentioned" to inanimate things (actors, acts, and objects) is not rare either in the United States or in the UK. I see and hear it regularly in California—and certainly "well-intentioned" has become more frequent in Ngram results over the past century, while the frequency of "well-intended" has remained fairly flat, which might point to growing use of "well-intentioned" for both animate and inanimate things. In contrast, the aversion to applying "well-intended" to animate things remains strong. – Sven Yargs Feb 12 '15 at 5:01

I think well-intended is a non-standard (or at least less common) synonym of well-intentioned (Google's ngram shows well-intentioned as about six times more likely). Googling for the definition of well-intended shows simply well-intentioned. Given this, I disagree with your distinction. I would use well-intentioned in both cases you list.

  • I think that your Ngram graph is not plotting "well-intentioned" versus "well-intended" but rather some mysterious (and unhelpful) concatenation of "well - intentioned" versus "well - intended." See the final paragraph of my answer for a discussion of this issue. – Sven Yargs Feb 10 '15 at 5:28

The people of the American republic were well-intentioned in advocating presidential elections every 4 years. Johnny Doe's vote for Adlai Stevenson was well-intended.

  • 2
    Hello, Ronnie. That may be the way you'd use them, that may be the way several others would, it may be the way most people would. Sven Yargs' answer shows research worthy of upvotes. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '15 at 20:44
  • Here, the loss of the intended meaning, denotation, or connotation becomes obvious if we substitute well-intended with well-intentioned and vice-versa. A matter of preference as to which will result in a communication closest to ur intended meaning. – Ronnie Adams Feb 16 '15 at 20:46
  • That's not true. Sven Yargs says that stats seem to show that the terms are used more and more as synonyms. How can change in connotation be obvious? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '15 at 20:49
  • Usually, ur choice in "synonyms" is greatly influenced, for one, by how effectively it fits in the producing of ur intended meaning and, therefore,the "stats" may become secondary to the contextual setting. – Ronnie Adams Feb 16 '15 at 21:06

protected by Mari-Lou A Jan 25 '18 at 9:24

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