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In all the sources I can find, the terms "manipulable" and "manipulatable" are both defined as some form of "able to be manipulated". But depending on the source, one word seems to be related to mechanical motion whereas the other is related to the act of persuasion. None of the sources I can find list the two words as actually equivalent to each other, so I can only assume the mechanical/persuasive split is intentional.

Is there a common understanding or historically-supported difference between the semantics of the two words, or should a dictionary list them as alternate forms of each other?

  • FWIW, OED's primary entry is manipulable, defined as able to be manipulated; flexible, tractable. Under the separate entry for manipulatable, the "etymology" includes compare slightly earlier manipulable, and the definition simply says = manipulable. – FumbleFingers Nov 12 '14 at 19:59
  • I would take the shorter form to mean capable of being changed or adjusted, and the longer form to mean capable of being manipulated (in an artificial or self-serving fashion). Normally the second form would be a less than ideal replacement for a slightly longer phrase (eg, "He can be manipulated" vs "He is manipulatable"). – Hot Licks Nov 12 '14 at 20:15
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    I've never heard or read "manipulatable", though any competent speaker|reader would know what it meant in context. You'd encounter a periphrasis ( "can be manipulated" ) far more often than manipulatable, though maybe not in England. Compare on ngram (it can be manipulated),manipulatable against British English. – TRomano Nov 12 '14 at 22:30
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    It sounds a lot like the "oriented"/"orientated" divide. In that one, there's no semantic difference but users of each have strong opinions of the "correctness" of their choice. – RJHunter Nov 12 '14 at 23:53
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You neglect that "manipulate" already has a suffix. The word "manipulatable" applies a suffix to an already-suffixed root.

Consider the difference between the known meaning of the word "manipulate" and the supposed meaning of its root. "Manipulate" describes a process of controlling something. That process part is very important--it's what the affix "-ate" brings. The root, then, means at its essence the inherent property of being controllable. We don't have a word that's based on this root for that, but that's important to understand for appreciating the difference here.

"Manipulatable", therefore, means that a thing can be worked especially because the manipulate root is already affixed to describe the act of controlling something. When you say "manipulatable", you're describing something that can have that process applied to it. Thus the relevance to mechanical processes. This definition is used much less often than "manipulable" is is likely far newer; the distinction is likely maintained overtly and intentionally, to provide a more specific word than "manipulable" brings. Not all sources recognize "manipulatable" as a word.

The word "manipulable", on the other hand, skips the "-ate" affix and goes a step backwards to its root. It forgoes description of a process or action. Instead, it's describing something as "capable of being controlled", which makes sense in many more contexts besides those that can be described as "manipulatable".

So there you go. All things that are "manipulatable" are also "manipulable", but not all things that are "manipulable" are "manipulatable".

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    With some additional research, it appears you're exactly right: "manipulate" was formed from "manipulation", which was the "-ation" (essentially "the process of") suffix applied to the Latin root word "manipulus", or "to work with the hand". So "manipulable" would mean "workable (with the hand)" while "manipulatable" would mean "able to be worked (with the hand)". In short, it's the same distinction between "usable" and "can be used", which is likely why we see "manipulable" in connection with psychology and "manipulatable" in connection with engineering (via Ngrams). – wersimmon Nov 13 '14 at 14:01
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Based on a comparison in Google Ngram Viewer, 'manipulable' is far and away the more commonly used word.

Sometime a discrepancy like this can indicate that one term has a more arcane or specialized meaning, as you suggest. A cursory browse through the source material provided by the above link, however, doesn't show me anything clear cut. It looks plausible that 'manipulatable' was a common term in mid-twentieth century behavior psychology, but there are also similar texts in the 'manipulable' sources.

My conclusion would be that 'manipulable' is just the older and more common word. The appropriate context for one word over the other is unclear, but the meanings are essentially equivalent.

  • I would say " can be manipulated" without bothering whether there is an adjective form and what form it has. That would mean studying big dictionaries. I think the adjective manipulable is not easy to pronounce and the second form manipulatable is almost impossible to pronounce at the first go. – rogermue Feb 2 '16 at 17:09

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