Which Word Wednesday: Preventative vs. Preventive

By June 12, 2013 language One Comment


You know what I love about my friends? They know I’m a word nerd and they still talk to me and even feed me potential cases for Which Word Wednesday. I am one blessed gal. This week’s entry of preventative and preventive comes from friend Melisa. Her inquiry sent me to my reference books where I found some pretty fascinating info. Brace yourselves, people! You won’t get this sort of fascination just anywhere, you know.

We’re going to the New Oxford American Dictionary first:

noun & adjective :: another term for preventive

adjective :: designed to keep something undesirable such as illness, harm, or accidents from occurring: preventive medicine.

noun :: a medicine or other treatment designed to stop disease or ill health from occurring.

Poor preventative. When the dictionary uses “another term for,” it’s a nice way of saying “this word is not preferred.” Ouch. Mark Davidson, in his Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, gives some insight into this preference:

“Both preventive and preventative have been used for more than three hundred years, and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says that ‘each is standard as both adjectives and nouns.’ But preventative was panned as ‘not a correct word’ in William and Mary Morris’ Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage and was dismissed as ‘a needless lengthening of an established word’ in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Though R. W. Burchfield says in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage that both forms are acceptable, he cites evidence that the shorter form is used much more frequently and he prescribes that form ‘for most contexts.’1

The Grammarist explains that the short form “is the original adjective corresponding to prevent” although the longer form “has gained ground and is now a common variant.” This sounds a lot like other words that have a short and a long form—orient/orientate or exploitive/exploitative. It’s like we want to complicate things by adding extra syllables. The Grammarist also offers this insight:

“The prevalence of the shorter form is seen throughout the English-speaking world, but the longer form is especially common outside North America. In British news stories from 2012, for instance, the ratio of preventive to preventative was very nearly 1:1, while it was almost 10:1 in U.S. news stories from the same period.”

That brings us back to the U.S. English vs. British English debate (here and here). Maybe it’s the English who like to complicate language by lengthening perfectly fine words? And then those longer forms make their way across the proverbial pond.

What’s my WWW verdict? Using preventative instead of preventive in the presence of language sticklers will not send them over the edge. The longer form is extra work though, for the speaker and the listener. I say save your syllables and use the short form.

What’s your verdict? Do you use preventative or preventive? Are you a complicator? Are you British? Do share in the comments.


www2013Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 429–430.
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