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Preventative or preventive

Q From Chuck Galle, New Hampshire; a similar question came from Robert A Arey in New Jersey: I was astonished recently to find you using preventative. My dear late mother decried the word, claiming, as people are wont to do, that it didn’t exist, but was a corruption of preventive. Being a dutiful son I accepted her position unquestioningly, and have abjured its use, thus enjoying a smug superiority hearing it used in American TV commercials and popular programs. Perhaps you will set me right?

A Your mother was in good company, since preventative has been widely disliked down the years. The first known written objection was penned in 1869 by Richard Bache in a book entitled Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (that’s put me in my place). Extreme dislike continues in some style guides: Bryan Garner says in his Modern American Usage, “The strictly correct form is ‘preventive’ (as both noun and adjective) though the corrupt form with the extra internal syllable is unfortunately common.”

It may not be immediately clear why Mr Garner considers my longer form to be corrupt. Preventative includes the ending -ative, which nobody objects to in talkative or exploitative; it has been in English since the seventeenth century, about as long as his preferred preventive, though it is today much less common. His reason is that 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 praevenire, to come before, so making preventive.

Another similarly controversial pair is interpretative and interpretive. This one makes me twitch a little, since I was for many years a heritage interpreter and used the adjective in articles and reports. I preferred interpretive, as did most of my colleagues. A reader bitterly complained to me once that it was ill-formed and that interpretative was the correct form. Henry Fowler, in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926, agreed with him, the Latin past participle stem in this case being interpretat-, so making interpretative.

The third edition of Fowler, edited by Robert Burchfield in 1996, noted that interpretative is under pressure from interpretive, as quantitative is being threatened by quantitive (the Latin past participle here is quantitat-, so quantitative is correct by the usual rule). One reason for the shorter forms being preferred may be the difficulty of correctly articulating those stuttering syllables in the middle of the words.

So why do I like interpretive and preventative? It can’t be that I prefer short forms over longer, since there’s one of each. My chosen pair sound better to me than their alternatives; perhaps I just like words of four syllables. Paint me idiosyncratic.

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Page created 14 Jun 2008