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The word "commit" has a couple of uses: "to commit (oneself) to X", or "to commit X". The former seems to generally imply commitment to doing something good, while the latter seems to generally be negative.

Examples:

  • commit a crime
  • commit murder
  • commit suicide*
  • commit a felony
  • commit treason

Is there any case, contemporary or archaic, where this structure is used without negative connotations? Why, historically, did this pattern develop?

*This example is somewhat anomalous, since in modern usage, though negative, it may not imply a moral judgment.

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    A Google search for "commit an act of kindness" certainly turns up quite a few hits. This could be seen as a reaction against the negative thrust the verb usually carries when used in the 'carry out' sense. Earlier, I'd have said it was merely a tongue-in-cheek usage. / As I estimate the probability of finding supporting evidence for these views less than 1%, I'll not look for any, and I'll confinethis response to a 'comment'. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 25 '18 at 22:25
  • One can commit funds or other resources to a project. – KarlG Feb 25 '18 at 23:22
  • I suppose the difference with committing "funds", or committing in a VCS (for programmers) is that those uses involve committing a thing, not committing an action. E.g. a "crime" is something you do, but "funds" are not. – Ian D. Scott Feb 25 '18 at 23:34
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    Adding act or deed gets you well into positive territory: commit a charitable, loving, honest act, but commit x seems fully inhabited by sins, crimes, and other negatives. – KarlG Feb 26 '18 at 0:58
  • I'll be sure to commit whatever answer you select as the best to memory. Hopefully, that won't be a bad thing. Should I be committed to a mental institution for thinking that? Wait, if I'm committed to a mental institution, does that make me bad or make me getting treatment bad? I wait with baited breath to find out. – Benjamin Harman Apr 23 at 22:56
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The OED does apply an entire branch (II) of the word commit to "perpetrating" something negative.

To do something wrong; to perpetrate.

This branch seems to encapsulate most of the common examples cited here where the term carries a moral judgment, such as commit suicide or commit a felony.

In its etymology notes, the OED explains the development of this branch:

In classical Latin the expression committere legiones ‘to commit troops’ gave rise to committere pugnam ‘to join battle‘, and from this developed the sense ‘to begin, undertake’ which in turn acquired a pejorative sense ‘to perpetrate’ (compare Branch II.).

This pejorative sense dominates uses of the word in this structure to commit [action], even to the extent that it can sometimes distort other senses that are inherently non-pejorative. An example is the once common phrase commit matrimony, meaning to get married.

The OED provides a phrasal definition with numerous citations for "commit matrimony," though, amusingly, some of the citations acknowledge the latent pejorative sense:

‘You shouldn't say this young couple “committed” matrimony.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘It isn't good taste. You talk as if they had done something wrong.’ [emphasis added]

  • 1903 Ohio Law Bulletin 25 May 216/2
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The usage of commit in reference to negative, reprehensible actions is derived from the Latin usage of “committere” from which the English commit is derived:

The evolution of the modern range of meanings in English is not entirely clear. Sense of "to perpetrate (a crime), do, perform (especially something reprehensible)" was ancient in Latin; in English it is attested from mid-15c. Meaning "consign (someone) to custody (of prison, a mental institution, etc.) by official warrant" is from early 15c.

(Etymonline)

Note that the same usage with reference to negative actions is common also in other languages like French commetre, Spanish cometer and Italian commettere given their common etymology.

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  • In software we commit a change when it is finished and added into the main product - not sure if this is always reprehensible ;-) – mgb Feb 25 '18 at 22:46
  • @mgb - yes, not common usage I guess, outside the software jargon. I guess OP is asking about more common usage as in the 3xamples they cited. – user 66974 Feb 26 '18 at 12:48
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As well as matrimony and kindness, acts of bravery are committed.

See http://dariuszgalasinski.com/2018/06/30/silencing-suicide/ for discussion of the positive and negative uses of the word "commit".

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    Do you mean "commit kindness" or "commit acts of kindness?" I found zero Ngram results without "acts" and welcome your findings. – livresque Apr 23 at 23:05

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