A WORD, PLEASE:

I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was minding my own business, standing in my kitchen washing dishes and couldn’t help but hear the TV in the next room.

There was a program on about “Love,” the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show, and one of the creators was talking about how expensive it is to put on the production. The cost “incentivized me” to make it profitable, he said. In the mumble-mumble years I’ve been writing about grammar, I’ve learned that peevishness is futile. When you start picking on others’ usage, it’s just a matter of time before you make a fool of yourself.

For example, there are countless people in the world who will tell you that it’s wrong to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, but it takes only 10 seconds to prove them wrong, say by opening up a copy of the “Chicago Manual of Style” or “Garner’s Modern American Usage” or “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” or the “Oxford English Grammar.”

The same is true for the folks who still believe you can’t use “healthy” to mean “healthful” or “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.” Any recent dictionary will show that’s not true. But still. “Incentivized me.” I mean, yuck. Right? So I mentioned it on an Internet forum where I sometimes write about language. I was very clear that my objection was of the “yuck” variety and not of the “that’s not a legitimate word” variety.

Within minutes, another user seconded my disdain by saying that he does not accept “incentivized” as a word. What’s more, he added, nouns are nouns and verbs are verbs, and we should respect the distinctions between the parts of speech by not making verbs out of nouns like “incentive.”

That’s when I remembered why I don’t air my own language peeves much. Because the people who agree with me sometimes fail to realize they’re not agreeing with me. Anyone who claims to respect the parts of speech can’t deny that suffixes are, in fact, a part of speech.

Just a few decades ago, “finalize” was considered by some to be an abomination. “Prioritize” suffered the same resistance. Yet they’re so well accepted today that my word-processing software isn’t even putting a red line under them as I type.

Who decides whether a word is acceptable? We do. We cast our votes every time we speak. Does that mean that anything we say is right? Not at all. It’s a democracy, complete with formal representation. We entrust people called lexicographers to interpret our implied “votes.”

Two out of three dictionaries I checked recognize “incentivize” as a word. People like our Internet friend like to think of the language as static — something that achieved a state of perfection in, say, whatever period they were in school. (How convenient for them.) But the truth is that 1950s English was an abomination unto 1940s English, and 1940s English was an erosion of 1930s English, and don’t get the Prohibition-era people started on how those Depression-era whippersnappers mangled the language.

The suffix “ize” dates back to the 16th century. So to oppose it, you’d have to assert that 1400s English is the only correct English. Coming from anyone who uses “you” and “your” in place of “thou” and “thine,” this argument doesn’t hold water.

Oh, and that business about how nouns should be nouns and verbs should be verbs? That idea can be disproved with just one word: paint. If we’re being reasonable, we have to accept that “incentivize” is a word — or at least an acceptable compound. The good news is, we still don’t have to like it.


 JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You’re Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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