There seems to be a pattern with English words using the ending -ive to have been adopted from the French female variant.

Eg: [english <- french(masculine/feminine)]

  • active <- act(if/ive)

  • massive <- mass(if/ive)

  • motive <- mot(if/ive)

  • abusive <- abus(if/ive)

  • competitive <- compétit(if/ive)

  • positive <- posit(if/ive)

  • progressive <- progress(if/ive)

Why is it that the English language more closely resembles the French feminine variants over the masculine ones?

  • 7
    Another one: naïf vs naïve.
    – AAM111
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:50

1 Answer 1


The suffix comes from the latin suffix -ivus (pronounced [iːwus]). In French, Latin declensions gradually eroded, so the suffix became -ive, ending with a [v] sound (a common evolution from the Latin [w]) and a schwa (a common evolution from Latin declensions). The schwa further disappeared from the masculine form, and the final /v/ sound changed to [f], I think under German influence.

English acquired the suffix via Anglo-Norman French in the 13th and 14th century, in the masculine form: actif, motif, etc. Later, in the 15th and 16th century, the suffix was added to other words directly in English (some of which then made their way back to French, such as competitive and sportive). As these words were usually created by scholars who knew Latin, they used a suffix that was closer to the Latin original, thus -ive. Over time the older -if forms evolved to match the expanding -ive forms.

The few -if words in modern English such as motif, aperitif, etc. (and a few others that aren't from French) are 19th century additions, not survivors from Anglo-Norman, except waif (which is not constructed with an -if suffix) and perhaps naif (I don't know whether this one is a survivance or a later reintroduction).

Source: Latin Suffixal Derivatives in English: and Their Indo-European Ancestry by D. Gary Miller (2006, Oxford University Press), cited in Wiktionary.

  • 1
    A good answer to an unresearched question. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 23:40
  • Additionally, motif, aperitif, digestif, massif made it as a substantives and naïf can be found in English dictionaries. My best guess: they are later additions by educated people attending salons, where the French reference was intentional (in particular the beverages called aperitif and digestif). The word massif is likely attributable to the English tourists who went climbing e.g. the Mont-Blanc at the end of the nineteenth century.
    – fralau
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 19:05
  • @fralau Yes, I think all the remotely common -if words in contemporary English apart from waif are 19th or 20th century imports, from long after the Anglo-Norman -if forms had disappeared. Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 19:37
  • Etymonline has naif first used in the 1590s, so possibly one of the few words that actually is from early French rather than 'a word was taken from a root of French into a root of English'. Commented Nov 5, 2017 at 12:28
  • @TimLymington As far as I can tell, motif was introduced from Anglo-Norman, disappeared in favor of motive, and much later the architectural term was introduced from French. With naif, I don't know whether it's a survivance or a later reintroduction. Commented Nov 5, 2017 at 14:55

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