From the Exam book, Cambridge English FIRST 1 (2014), Test 2, paper 1: Reading and Use of English. The aim is to modify the word in caps so that it fits in the gap on the same line.

Running Speed

[…] For years, it was assumed that simple muscle power determined human speed, but recent research suggests otherwise. The most important (19) ....... factor appears to be how LIMIT quickly the muscles can contract and thus (20)..... the time a runner's foot is in MINIMUM contact with the ground.

My private student wrote limitative for No.19, but the answers at the back of the book say the correct answer is limiting. Although I agree that “limiting” sounds better, I believe that my student's answer “limitative” is also grammatically correct. The book offers no explanation and no other possible alternative.

  • limiting: functioning as a limit
  • limitative: limiting, restrictive


  • Is limitative grammatically incorrect for answer (19)? I can't figure out why Cambridge doesn't also accept limitative, could someone explain?


  • 1
    I think limitative is correct here. But the word is extremely rare, so the test setters probably didn't even think of it: See Google Ngram. Jan 1, 2016 at 15:05
  • I have never heard/read "limitative" before. But according to the dictionary it means "limiting" and is presumably a valid answer. (Do advise the student that it's a rare word and should not generally be used, though.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:05
  • I can imagine why you student wrote limitative instead of limiting. As a far as I know, the accepted choice in those exams is the best, most used use, but it does not necessarily imply that other possible choices are wrong.
    – user66974
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:20
  • 1
    @Josh61 and limitative is in the OED, a rare word is "rare" not "wrong". I only wanted to be sure there wasn't a grammatical reason.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:25
  • I didn't say it is wrong, but I think that, having to chose between the two, limiting is the "winner".
    – user66974
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:33

3 Answers 3


Limitative relating to limits, having to do with limits.

Limiting imposing a limit.

The -ive suffix in the adjective limitative would indicate that a noun modified by that adjective would relate or pertain to limits, that it has some of the characteristics of a limit, or while itself not being a limit per se could function much like one or as one. That constellation of meanings is only nibbling at the edges of what is needed in the sentence.

In other words, researchers considered a number of limitative factors, i.e. factors of a kind that could serve to impose a limit. But the most important of the limiting factors, i.e. factors actually imposing a limit, was speed of muscle contraction.

  • Limiting is the answer.
    – TimR
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:42
  • Also limitative means "imposing a limit" collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/limitative. For some reason it is uncommon.
    – user66974
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:48
  • Collins offers a very loosy goosy definition.
    – TimR
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:53
  • 1
    whereas your definition (from where?) is filled to the brim with detail. :) Would you mind stating in your answer that limiting is the answer, and, perhaps, explain "why"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 1, 2016 at 15:56
  • 2
    Can you give a source for your definition? Jan 1, 2016 at 15:57

If you consider similar word pairs, such as


... you'll see that in each pair the first word's function is to modify something that has possibilities, whilst the second one is used when describing something concrete: a certainty.

Just a theory.

  • @Rathony: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and all.
    – Ricky
    Jan 2, 2016 at 2:13
  • @Rathony: I'll try not to.
    – Ricky
    Jan 2, 2016 at 2:53
  • So, are you saying that both "limitative" and "limiting factors" are grammatical, only its meaning changes?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 3, 2016 at 10:03
  • @Mari-LouA: I'm saying no such thing. "Limitative" is a nonsensical word. As is "grammatical," come to think of it. I didn't put any of that in the answer lest someone should take umbrage and all.
    – Ricky
    Jan 3, 2016 at 10:09
  • That's interesting, you should edit your answer and include that reflection. Nowhere does your post say that limitative factor is nonsensical, how was I to infer that? And no, you didn't mention anything about its grammar, but I did in my question, and that is why I asked.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 3, 2016 at 10:12

Guess what I'm thinking.

Many exams degenerate into that form without realizing it. It's not fair but it's true. I've had to grade papers after running into this issue myself. Best way to deal with it is to explain your thinking.

My answer to 19 by the way would probably be: deciding. Why can I do that? Because the instructions didn't limit the definition of what it means to modify a word. So I modified into a whole new word. Yes, I was a difficult student in school.

Limiting is far more popular than limitative. There is no grammatical justification to pick one over the other. It's entirely unreasonable to expect the book to be perfect. I'd say the student deserves the point. I also think the student needs a mark on their paper because this is a teaching moment.

Being correct is no excuse to be ignorant. You owe it to this student to make clear this is not the popular choice, even if it is a correct one.

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