Last week I was doing a group project which sparked a rather heated debate – should we say “early adopter” or “early adapter“? It’s a mistake that is very commonly made, and seems to even divide and confuse native English speakers.

Though this is a seemingly small difference between two existing words, both have different implications.

So, considering both “adopter” and “adapter” are actual words in the English language, which one should we use in the context of an “early ad@pter”?

The answer you are looking for in this case is “early adopter”.

Both words come from a verb – to adopt and to adapt. To adopt refers to taking up something, in this case a practice, and make it your own. To adapt means to modify your behavior to a changing situation. Arguments could be made for both of these words, but in this case “early adopters” are generally ahead of the curve, adopting a new system. This means you aren’t really adapting to anything, but instead you are getting ahead of the situation.

To clarify even further, here is what Simon Cooke at Accidental Scientist wrote:

Folks, please, don’t make the mistake that one head of marketing at Sierra I used to know did (and fought me tooth and nail on it, insisting that they were correct), and call the people you’re relying on to buy your product early in the game early adapters. The phrase you are looking for is early adopter. 

Note the ‘O’.

This is someone who is part of the first vanguard of people to ever use a new thing. They adopt the thing early on. (Adopt meaning “to take up and practice as one’s own”). An early adapter, however, is someone who takes something early on and, like McGuyver or the A-Team, adapts it to their own nefarious purposes. This usually involves and/or incorporates duct tape somewhere in the process, a pocketknife, and potentially a Sharpie permanent marker. Big difference.

So, there you have it.

It’s a common mistake, but one that can be easily avoided. Next time the question comes up, you know what to do.