April 28, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: preventive or preventative & ambiguous or vague pronoun references

Posted in ambiguous or vague pronoun references, preventive/preventative at 10:33 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips


A reader writes:

Best sighting of the week (on the side of a Pitt truck):

Door must remain locked when not with truck

Tip 1: Preventative or preventive

We are in the process of writing a grant proposal to create a Research Center of Excellence in Clinical Preventive Services in Primary Care, so I thought it might be a good time to write about ‘preventative’ and ‘preventive’ once more. An earlier discussion is here: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/preventivepreventative/

I promise I’ll be brief—I did mention we were in the process of writing a grant proposal, right? Okay, this is it: there is a ton of controversy, very well-mannered controversy, but controversy all the same. Some say they are the same and interchangeable; some say there are centuries of precedence for using ‘preventative’; some say that ‘preventive’ is an adjective, and ‘preventative’ is the noun; some say only ‘preventive’ is correct; and some say the same for ‘preventative.’ I read one long argument that argued that since it comes from the Latin, ‘preventative’ is correct, but they go on to use ‘talkative’ as another example—where is there any Latin root in ‘talkative’? Be serious. That’s just nonsense. I don’t have time right now to join the fray about language use surrounding this word. Suffice it to say, the standard usage is ‘preventive.’ Using ‘preventative’ (whether right or wrong) brings a risk of the reader considering you less well-educated or just plain wrong. And surely. we don’t want to risk the reviewers of our grant proposal to have these thoughts. And right now, an important reason for using ‘preventive’ is that it is the language of the funding agency. At some later point, when this proposal is out the door, perhaps I will take the time to develop more cogent arguments, but for now this is it: if you are working on this proposal, ‘preventive’ is the word you want to use.

Tip 2: Ambiguous or vague pronoun references

Although the plan  is to perform a formal evaluation on an annual basis, we can’t predict how it will turn out.

[DISCLAIMER: This example was made up and was not found in anyone’s writing.]

The point I am trying to make with this example is this: when you have more than one noun in a sentence, it has to be clear to the reader just which noun the subsequent pronoun is referring to. In the example, we cannot tell if the ‘it’ in the sentence is referring to ‘the plan’ or ‘a formal evaluation.’ A better way to put it, if you can find a specific pronoun to clarify the sentence, would be to eschew the pronoun (don’t you just love the word ‘eschew’?), and use the noun in its place.

Although the plan  is to perform a formal evaluation on an annual basis, we can’t predict how the evaluation will turn out.

Here is another example:

The faculty of the center told the directors that they would not be able to come to a consensus.

Who was unable to come to a consensus ‘the faculty’ or ‘the directors’? A better way:

The faculty of the center told the directors that the directors would not be able to come to a consensus.

The bottom line: we need to achieve clarity and precision.



  1. Keith said,

    fyi, the link to “an earlier discussion” links to this page.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Try the next page link on the bottom of the page.

  2. Brian said,

    If preventive is the correct word construction, should talkative be constructed as talkive? If you feel someone using preventative makes them sound uneducated, how would you then perceive someone who writes talkive? What if the people reading your proposal use preventative, and believe preventive is ignorant? Im not judging either way. Im only saying the risk, in the scenario you described in your post, is equal in either form.

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