That's What They Say
9:05 am
Sun March 2, 2014

The audaciousness of tricky word endings

If a "preventive" measure is the same thing as a "preventative" measure, it seems hard to justify having both words.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss words with multiple endings.

In this case of preventive and preventative, preventive is used more often.  So is the shorter ending always more common?

“If we look at the ‘ive’ ending as in preventive, versus the ‘ative’ ending as in preventative, it’s not always the case that the shorter one wins,” Curzan argues.  

When looking at the terms exploitative and exploitive, Curzan found that the “ative” ending is four times more common than the “ive” ending.  Nevertheless, both of these terms are in dictionaries, making either usage correct.

There are more double words with the Latin “ity” ending and the English “ness” ending. Examples include audaciousness versus audacity, aggressiveness versus aggressivity and passiveness versus passivity. There is not a pattern among the most-used terms, which in these examples are audacity, aggressiveness and passivity.

“It is about our preferences,” Curzan explains. “As one word comes to be used more and more, we see it more, we hear it more and it gets a kind of energy to it.”

The example tortuous versus torturous is even more confusing. Originally, both of these words had different meanings. In the 15th century, tortuous meant “full of turns” while torturous meant “causing torture.” However, the two terms are now used interchangeably despite their different endings.

Are there any language quirks that you find torturous? 

– Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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