June 24, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Preventive or preventative & ic or ical

Posted in ic/ical, preventive/preventative at 6:43 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Preventive or preventative

I recently ran across this in a grant proposal:

In this study, we will use the clinic’s Electronic Medical Record (EMR) to determine if the patient was given a reminder of the recommended preventative screening test and to verify if the patient actually received the screening exam.

We talked about this a while ago, but I’ve seen it frequently, so I thought it was worth another mention. What I am talking about is the use of ‘preventative’ when we really mean ‘preventive.’

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding these words, and it goes back a long way. I’ve seen quotations from writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries railing about the use/misuse of ‘preventative.’ The bottom line is this: ‘Preventive’ is the standard form.

‘Preventative’ has its supporters. and they are legion; however, ‘preventative’ is a variation of ‘preventive’ (Garner goes so far as to call it a needless variant), and others say that the use of ‘preventative’ is incorrect, and it is not a word at all. There is a lot of wacky lore about these words on the web. Some say ‘preventive’ should be used as an adjective only and ‘preventative’ as a noun (William Safire was of this opinion). Some say that ‘preventative’ should be used when referring to an actual object, and ‘preventive’ should be used when referring to a concept. Others say just the opposite. I am going to stay safely out of this fray.

My recommendation is this: Always use ‘preventive’ because 1) its use is standard and most, if not all, dictionaries prefer this use, 2) some readers believe ‘preventative’ is wrong and its use is a mistake, and 3) you save a syllable. What’s wrong with that?

Tip 2: ic or ical

A reader writes:

physiologic, physiological … psychologic versus psychological, etc.
have you addressed these -logics and logicals?

Well, a few months ago, I wrote about methodological and how methodologic is NOT a word and why we should stop using it, but the reader is right-there are a lot of adjectives that end in ‘ic’ or ‘ical,’ so I think it is worth thinking about.

Sometimes, both words ending in ‘ic’ or ‘ical’ mean the same thing:

numeric, numerical (both mean pertaining to numbers)

ironic, ironical (both mean pertaining to an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs or pertaining to an expression marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning) [Thank you freedictionary.com.]

I would put the reader’s example of physiologic and physiological in this category, as I see both used fairly frequently.

Sometimes, the words ending in ‘ic’ or ‘ical’ have differing meanings:

politic, political (politic means prudent, and political means relating to politics)

historic, historical (historic means of great import in history, and historical means pertaining to history)

economic, economical (economic means pertaining to the economy, and economical means thrifty)

Sometimes, one of the endings is not allowed and the ”word” it forms is illegitimate:

scientific, scientifical (scientifical is not a word)

methodologic, methodological (methodologic is not a word)

I would put one of the reader’s examples in this category:

psychologic, psychological (psychologic is not a word)

While many of these “non-words” are considered variants, I would avoid using them as they are called needless variants for a reason.

So, what are the rules for using ‘ic’ or ‘ical’? There is a surprising (at least to me) number of scholarly articles on this issue. I found a particularly good one (in all truth, the beginnings of one) in the International Computer Archive of Modern English Journal:

Gries, ST (2001). “A corpus-linguistic analysis of English-ic vs-ical adjectives”. ICAME journal (0801-5775), 25, p. 65.

I read about the first 18 pages, and then it turned into equations and numbers that looked suspiciously like statistics, and I lost interest. (The whole article is 44 pages-oh my.)

Gries reviewed the literature and came up with a table of rules, posited by various parties, of when to use the ‘ic’ ending and when to use ‘ical.’ I have included this table, below.

Table: Findings and claims on -ic/-ical adjectives
ic                                                           ical
quality and category                     quality
direct connection to root            less direct connection to root
specific                                                 less specific/ more general
genuine resembling                        imitation
positive                                                 less positive or negative
scientific terms                                  wider common use

While these rules, for the most part, sound good, and I can find words that fit into each of these categories, they all fail in the end because there are more exceptions to each than anything else.

What to do? Choose your words carefully, and when in doubt, look them up in a dictionary. Make sure the word you choose has the meaning you intend; make sure the word you choose is, in fact, a word. That’s all there is to it.

And stop using methodologic.

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