What's the difference between oblige and obligate?

Speculating, is the latter an Americanism of the British former? Or is there any distinction about what/who has caused someone to be oblig(at)ed to do something?

8 Answers 8


Neither is more correct than the other. They're both common words. In fact, they're sometimes different words. For instance, to oblige someone is to do something for them that they want you to do. "She asked me to pick up dinner, and I obliged her by getting some lasagna from a little Italian place down the street."

That's not the same as obligating someone, which means to make them HAVE to do something (or feel that they have to). "Although the statue was meant as a birthday gift, he obviously felt obligated to get me something expensive in return, despite my protestations."

There is a dialect aspect to it as well. What's wrong with "obligate"? In US English nothing is wrong with it. In Australian English everything is wrong with it. Here's how I'd have put it.

"Although the statue was meant as a birthday gift, he obviously felt obliged to get me something expensive in return, despite my protest."

In my dialect "oblige" is fairly common but "obligate" is never heard. The distinction that Uriel mentions is not made in Australian English. We use "oblige" for both meanings.

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    My dialect (modern RP / British English) would treat "obligate" as a foreign (American) and needlessly fussy version of oblige. Even in legal usage (I work as a lawyer) I'd be surprised to see obligate outside a US contract or tract. In the law of obligations we talk about obligors and obligees not obligators and obligatees which would follow the American usage I guess. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 9:45
  • I agree that they mean the same thing, but it seems to me that just as we could either say oriented or orientated we can use obliged or obligated. For some reason though, while "oriented" is more widely used in the U.S., "obliged" is more commonly used in some other English speaking countries.
    – Alan Gee
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 18:09

Should anyone still be interested, I thought to quote Grammarist.com's article (which offers example sentences that I don't replicate here):

As a transitive verb, one which requires an object, oblige can mean to restrict by external force or circumstances. To be obliged is to be in someone’s debt because of a favor or service. As an intransitive verb, one which does not require an object, oblige means to take action as a favor, or without reward.

A person who obliges is an obliger, though the noun form is hardly ever used.

Obligate carries a slightly different meaning, which is to force someone (or an organization) to do something because the law or morality requires it.

Over the last hundred years, obliged has fallen in use while obligated has risen very slightly, though obliged is still more common.


From a legal point of view, per the argument of the legal scholar H.L.A. Hart, to be obliged is when you must do something under threat of sanction. In other words, you have little choice in the matter. Obligation, on the other hand, is an appeal to authority and morality rather than an appeal to fear or sanction. So you might say, 'The bank teller was obliged to hand over the money under gunpoint'. Similarly, 'The man was obligated to find two witnesses, or his claim would fail under law.'

See the difference? This is a linguistic distinction based on legal arguments, so I'm not sure whether you can extend what I have said to general usage of the words 'obliged' and 'obligated'.


To sum it up......... Once obligated, you can't back out without serious repercussions. To say that I'm obliged to do something means that I could live with the consequences of not doing it.


They're similar, but not identical. "Obliged" means to be in someone's debt because of a favor or service, while "obligated" means to be forced to do something because the law or morality requires it. The former is a courtesy, the latter is a requirement. If you were writing a contract or other legal agreement, you would never use "obliged" because it's not binding the way "obligated" is.


We could get some point from the description of Etymology of obligate:

1540s, "to bind, connect;" 1660s, "to put under moral obligation," back-formation from obligation, or else from Latin obligatus, past participle of obligare (see oblige). Oblige, with which it has been confused since late 17c., means "to do one a favor." Related: Obligated; obligating.

Originally, they have definitely different meanings. Now they are confused with each other ("since 17c.").


Try Merriam-Webster to find the answer to such questions.

Obligate: 1. to bind legally or morally: CONSTRAIN; 2. to commit (something, such as funds) to meet an obligation

Oblige: 1. to constrain by physical, moral, or legal force or by the exigencies of circumstance. 2. to put in one's debt by a favor or service. 3. to do a favor for

Interpretation: In most cases, these verbs are interchangeable. For AmE vs BrE, check what NYTimes is using vs. What BBC is using.

My distinction is when you are talking about a legal obligation or a strong moral obligation, use the word "obligate" rather than "oblige." On the other hand, if you mean something that you do as a favor with a slightly moral obligation, use "oblige." As in:

I am obligated to appear for a trial next week.

The funds are obligated for the new social center.

I am obliged to invite him to my marriage.

His gift to me obliges me to return a favor.

Make use of the word "oblige" more commonly as it's what corpus linguists would prefer. Restrict the use of "obligate" only in legal circumstances or strong moral connotations.


The verb is to oblige, therefore you are obliged.

The noun is obligation, so you can "have an obligation" and qualify it by adding moral, legal, immutable or whatever. There's no need to invent obligated; it's as crass as saying "disrespecting" instead of being disrespectful.

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    No; they're both verbs. Check in a dictionary. ELU is concerned with the facts of English usage, and is not primarily a platform for personal crusades. Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 20:57
  • "Disrespecting" carries a strong connotation of intent, while one who is "being disrespectful" may or may not be so with such pointedness, or even deliberately at all. The enrichment and increased subtlety of language is not "crass".
    – bobro
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 17:36

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