Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In this answer about the non-word disabilitated, the word preventative is compared (unfavourably, if my reading of the implication is correct) to preventive.

However, I have always used preventative, and can only recall hearing it in its longer form. Merriam-Webster online lists preventative (defining it as equal to preventive) as being first used circa 1666, and lists preventive as first used circa 1639.

Is this is a BrEng/AmEng difference? What is the etymology of these words?

(There is a question about this on World Wide Words, but more, or more precise, information would be appreciated.)

share|improve this question
I wouldn't claim to speak for @Robusto, but that's not actually what his answer says. –  user1579 May 26 '11 at 17:30
@Rhodri: I apologise. My paraphrasing was incorrect - I shall attempt to make it more accurate. –  John Bartholomew May 26 '11 at 17:31
@Robusto: I have reworded my opening sentence. If you find it misrepresentative (heh, there's that -ative ending again), I would welcome suggestions for improvement, or a direct edit to my question if you have that ability. –  John Bartholomew May 26 '11 at 17:45
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

These two words have come into being because there is arguably an -ative suffix in addition to an -ive suffix. The reason that -ative is emerging as a suffix unto itself is because of a high occurrence of -ate verbs (differentiate, alleviate, demonstrate), leading to a high co-occurrence of -at-ive words. (This is similar to how the -ical suffix emerged through the glomming together of -ic and -al, and how -ation has emerged from -ate and -ion.)

Thus, we have two fairly similar ways of constructing these types of adjectives from verbs. For many words we just use -ive, and for many -ative words there is also a corresponding -ate verb. But, there are some common -ative adjectives for which there is no intervening -ate verb. OED mentions authoritative and qualitative as examples. There's also argumentative, augmentative, and so on.

The OED says that preventive is the earlier form and preventative is later, but the citations show both of them coming around in the 1600s and first citation of preventative being just 30 years later than preventive. So, agreeing with your etymological sources, both have been around for, more or less, an equally long time.

With this information, it is hard to justify any prescriptive advice that says that only preventive is correct. This is not backed up by current usage, history, or even grammar (unless e.g. authoritative is wrong).

Your World Wide Words link makes an interesting observation; perhaps there is a prosodic influence, where the syllable-stress pattern might encourage -ative, even in certain cases where there is no -ate form. Without doing an in-depth analysis of -ative words, it's tough to know for sure.

There could be regional differences in what is preferred, but I couldn't find any hard evidence one way or the other. (I know I say preventative.)

share|improve this answer
+1 I think authoritative and qualitative can be explained as coming (indirectly, through French) from the Latin nouns auctoritas, gen. auctoritat-is and qualitas, gen. qualitat-is, respectively. (The others are probably due to the back-formation of a suffix -ative from the verbs on -ate, as you say.) // I am generally in favour of shorter words, ceteris paribus, and would hence prefer preventive myself. –  Cerberus May 27 '11 at 4:45
Thanks as always for adding some good Latin info. –  Kosmonaut May 27 '11 at 4:52
add comment

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) includes this discussion (part of a longer comment) on preventative versus preventive:

You may wonder how preventative came to be objected to. The earliest attack is in [Richard Meade] Bache 1869 [Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech]; he said that there was no such word. Bache's book was one of those used by [Alfred] Ayres 1881 [The Verbalist], who also criticized preventative. From Ayres it went to [Frank] Vizetelly 1906 [A Desk-Book of Errors in English], [Ambrose] Bierce 1909 [Write It Right], [H. N.] MacCracken & [Helen] Sandison 1917 [Manual of Good English], and [Charles] Lurie 1927 [How to Say It]. [Henry] Fowler 1926 [A Dictionary of Modern English Usage] picked it up too, and so it has gone right down to the 1980s. A couple of commentators—[Bergen] Evans 1962 [Comfortable Words] and [William] Watt 1967 [A Short Guide to English Usage]—realize that preventative is acceptable. Probably none of the recent objectors realizes that his opinion goes back to Bache 1869. But the moderns do not claim that preventative is nonexistent anymore; nowadays they say it is wrong because it is "irregularly formed." That is not so, of course. It is formed in the same way as authoritative, quantitative, normative, talkative, and other words to which no one objects.

The same comment appears in the (very slightly) updated Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994).

But whatever the validity of preventative as a word may be today, the notion that disapproval of it originated with Bache's 1869 book is demonstrably wrong. In fact, the earliest such instance that I'm aware of occurs in the first Merriam-Webster edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847). There you'll find the following regular-size entries for preventable and prevented:

PREVENTABLE, a. That may be prevented or hindered. Reynolds.

PREVENTED, pp. Hindered from happening or taking effect.

And between these two entries, in smaller type, this bracketed note appears:

[PREVENTATIVE is a gross blunder.]

Though the version of the relevant dictionary in Google Books is dated 1850, that edition was first published in 1847 (I have the 1852 version), which makes its denunciation of preventative 22 years older than Bache's.

With regard to the historical legitimacy of preventative, I think it's somewhat misleading to focus on the fact that its first known occurrence is just 30 years younger than the first known occurrence of preventive. The latter term appears (both as a noun and as an adjective) in every dictionary I've consulted, starting with Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756), and ranging through the various nineteenth-century editions of Webster's (1806, 1828, 1840, 1847, 1867, and 1890) and the Webster's Collegiate series (1898, 1910, 1916, 1931, 1936, 1949, 1963, 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003). In contrast, preventative makes its bracketed debut in the 1847 Webster's and then reappears in the 1864 Webster's with this full-scale entry:

Preventative, n. That which prevents;—incorrectly used instead of preventive, q. v.

This dictionary appeared five years before Bache's book. The entry for preventative in Webster's International Dictionary (1890) is identical to the one that appears in the 1864 dictionary. Webster's New International Dictionary (1910) updates the entry to read as follows:

preventative, n. That which prevents;—an unnecessary and irregularly formed doublet of preventive.

The first and second editions of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1898 and 1910) show no such disapproval, despite being based on the 1890 Webster's International:

preventative, n. A preventive.

But the Third (1916), Fourth (1931), and Fifth (1936) Collegiates omit preventative altogether. The term reappears in the Sixth Collegiate (1949), with the old cautionary note restored (and for the first time with acknowledgment of the word's adjective form):

preventative, n. Preventive;—an irregular formation. —preventative, adj.

Finally, the Seventh Collegiate (1963) removes the stigmatizing "—an irregular formation" from the definition; and for the past 50 years, preventative has enjoyed equal status with preventive in Merriam-Webster's estimation.

Returning to the coverage of preventative in Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, it seems not at all unlikely that early grammar commentators relied as much on Merriam-Webster's hostile view of the term from 1847 through 1910 as on Richard Bache's hostile view in 1869. Similarly the "moderns" who criticized the term in more-recent times as "irregularly formed" might have found their opinion comfortingly corroborated in Merriam-Webster's Sixth Collegiate, which was the Collegiate Dictionary of record for the years between 1949 and 1962.

As for the WDEU's assertion that the preventative is just as regularly formed as authoritative, quantitative, normative, and talkative, the author of that statement neglects to observe that those four terms are adjectives that lack an earlier, identically spelled noun form and consequently do not owe their existence to it; historically, the criticism of preventative as "irregularly formed" referred to preventative as a noun (which was the only form of the word that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series acknowledged until 1949). A better example for the WDEU's purposes would have been recitative (from the Italian recitativo), which appears as a noun in Johnson's 1756 dictionary and in all Webster's dictionaries, and as an adjective in Webster's 1828 dictionary and all subsequent ones. But whether the noun recitative establishes a regular pattern of formation for the noun preventative—a word not derived from Italian (the corresponding Italian noun, according to Google Translate, is preventiva)—seems at least debatable.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.