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?
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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.
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'.
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.