Catherine from Edina, Minnesota, sent this message to us:
"Please address the word preventive ... while I'm hearing many people say preventative, I'm sure that is wrong. Am I right?"
Fowler's Modern English Usage says that both of these words entered the English language in the 17th century and that "they have been fighting it out ever since."
To help us understand this better, we invited author and linguist Michael Quinion back to the program. Quinion doesn't really have a problem with the word preventative, but some of his readers do. "They argued forcefully that I was incorrect recently when I used the word preventative in an article," Quinion says. "And it turns out the dislike of it is quite widespread."
Quinion says that preventative's bad reputation began with Latin grammarians of the 18th and 19th centuries.
"I came across a book called Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speechwhich I think might be a pointed comment in my direction," Quinion laughs.
In that 1869 book, author Richard Bache wrote that preventative was wrong. More recently, the book Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner describes preventative as "a corrupt form which is unfortunately common."
Quinion says the reason Bache and Garner consider preventative to be corrupt goes back to grammarians of yore who felt that words were only correct if they came from the right part of speech in Latin. Adjectives that end in -ive that are based on Latin roots are traditionally formed from the Latin past participle stem, in this case praevent-, from the Latin verb praevenire meaning "to come before" thus making preventive.
But Quinion adds that the suffix -ative is otherwise acceptable in English. "Nobody worries about that in words like talkative or exploitative," he says.
Fortifying his case, Quinion points out word pairs that are similar to preventative and preventive. "For example, argumentative, which no one would argue with," he says, "but there is another form, argumentive, which is less common." Quinion says he has searched for this second word online and as found thousands of examples. He has also found exploitative getting pressure from exploitive, and authoritative being challenged by authoritive.
"[But] in each case," Quinion says, "it's the one with the extra syllable that is Standard English, which interestingly is the other way round from preventive and preventative, where it's preventive that's regarded as standard. But the rules are based on those of Latin grammar and not on English grammar."
Quinion thinks applying Latin grammar to English is specious. "You can't argue about etymology particularly when you've got words that come as much from English as they do from Latin," he says. "This is particularly so with the pair preventative and preventative. Either you have a Latin root with one ending or an English root with a different one, and you can't argue that one is correct and the other is wrong on the basis of word histories."
But there may be a simpler, more human explanation for preventative's unpopularity. Quinion suggests that people may reject preventative because of its unstressed syllable in the middle. "I think a lot of people dislike it mentally because you can hear them stuttering," he says.
Quinion concludes by saying that what's considered correct in a language is typically decided by a majority. "If people feel that preventative is the right form in each case, then that's the one that will prevail and that's the one that's correct," he says. "English is as English does, basically."
Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; Vulgarisms And Other Errors Of Speech: To Which Is Added A Review Of Mr. G. Washington Moon's, Dean's English And Bad English by Richard Meade Bache; Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner; plus Michael Quinion's World Wide Words.
Music from this Episode: "Measuring Cups" by the Andrew Bird; "Captain of Her Heart" by Double; "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.