Do you “orient” yourself, or “orientate” yourself?

By Simon Kewin

This is a common source of disagreement. Both “orient” and “orientate” are verbs meaning to align or position yourself; to work out where you are within a particular situation or environment. The origin of both words is the same : the Latin word oriens meaning “rising” and “east”, because of the rising sun.

Orient as a noun means the countries of the East, especially those of east Asia. Strictly speaking, then, to orient/orientate yourself means to align yourself to the east, although the verb now has the general sense of “to position yourself”.

In the UK, it is more common for people to say “orientate” whereas in the US, “orient” is more common. Writers in both countries sometimes bemoan the usage of the alternative word. In fact, both words are acceptable according to the dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary list “orient” and “orientate” as verbs meaning the same thing. Which one you choose to use really just comes down to local preference. To a UK reader, “orient” may well sound non-standard, whereas “orientate” may sound clumsy to a US reader. Other parts of the world will have their own preferences. The key thing to remember is that both forms of the verb are generally acceptable.

As an aside, the opposite of Orient (the noun) is “Occident” : the countries of the West. There is, however, no equivalent verb. You can neither “occident” nor “occidentate” yourself. The closest verb is occidentalize, meaning to conform to western ideas or customs.

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34 Responses to “Do you “orient” yourself, or “orientate” yourself?”

  • Cecily

    So many Brits and Americans get irate with each other for using the “wrong”version that it’s good to read an even-handed explanation.

    It’s similar with preventive/preventative.

  • Peach

    I don’t care as much about ‘orient’ vs ‘orientate’ as I do about ‘oriented’ vs. ‘orientated.’ The TV guide channel used to drive me nuts with its “Community Orientated Programming”

  • Simon Kewin

    Peach,

    As a Briton, that would read fine to me (if a bit, you know, clumsy) whereas I’d never say “Community Oriented Programming”. Even though it’s perfectly valid. Strange thing, language.

  • Rod

    Can it be used as an adjective in participle? he is “well oriented” I mean he easily gets around

  • Andy Knoedler

    Due to long exposure to British English, I’ve become used to hearing and saying “orientate”. Let’s look at it this way. If the verb of “demonstration” is “demonstrate”, shouldn’t the verb of “orientation” be “orientate”? It just seems preferable to leave “orient” as the noun of this set of words.

  • Lisa G

    Andy, that logic would work if the word root for “demonstrate” was “demonst.” But alas–it is not.

  • Robert Wells

    Thank You Lisa. You should have roses! ! ! !

  • Alison

    I’m really annoyed when people say orientate, but I’m American, and it especially irritates me when other Americans say it. That’s like saying conversate instead of converse.

  • Tom

    Touche Lisa and to further smack down the “demonstration” example it neglects to recognize “presentation” never being used as “presentate”. Orientate is a stupid word, doubtless it was created by the same jackassery that allowed “irregardless” to fly.

  • Douglas

    Some teachers like to refer to these words as “misguided back-formation verbs” — verbs that have been mistakenly derived from English nouns ending in ‘-ation’. Truncating the “ate” along with the “ion” will get you back to the original verb. Such is the case with “orient” and “reconcile”. This is very different from the words which English has appropriated from other languages by appending them with the ‘-ate’ suffix….those do not fit this misguided category:  For example, the French infinitives “abbrevier, collaborer, contempler, demontrer, elaborer, etc.” cannot live without their ‘-ate.’ While I was recently chided for using “orientate” (I was quoting a NASA scientist speaking about the recent Mars rover launch), it is the one misguided back-formation that…well, just sounds right to me. I think the connotation to the shunned use of the word Orient (or Oriental) to describe the place (and people) from Eastern continents may be the culprit here….or perhaps too much time spent in the U.K.

  • John

    During flight school, we were told that early international airline pilots were the origin of the word orientate. Visit holduphsi.com briefly if you’re curious about why.

  • G-man

    I believe to ‘orient’ one self is to use chop sticks while eating, and sing Karaoke. Both of which I like to do. Sometimes in the same evening.

  • Mish

    I hear executives in my company say “orientate” on a regular basis. It sounds so horrid to me. I feel much better knowing the word exists, and they’re not walking around sounding like a bunch of fools. Apparently, I’m the ignorant one, not the other way around. Thanks for the info!!

  • doctortrish

    I have often pondered whether my patients are “disoriented” or “disorientated”. While I prefer the former, many of my colleagues use the more clumsy sounding latter term. Better to stick to saying “confused”, I think.

  • john

    They both stem from the same word but have slightly different meanings. But both can be used to describe the same thing, like; “Boy, I’m beat” & Boy, I’m pooped” – different original words, but express the same thing.

    To orient means to align yourself East (and, therefore West) – so to be disoriented means to not be able to find your East/West.

    To orientate mean to find yourself geographically using a compass, so to be disorientated means to be unable to find your way.

  • David Warr

    When you go to university you go through “orientation” not oriention. After the orientation you have been “orientated”. Oriented has something missing, just like your neighbor for neighbour and the missing o in maneuvre that Americans like.
    It bugs me that people use orient instead of orientate. I have a masters degree and people tell me that orientate is incorrect.
    What about “irregardless”?

  • Kim

    True David, but there are plenty of other verbs that add ‘-ation’ to transform into their noun form: combine-combination, organise-organisation, tempt-temptation, conserve-conservation, imagine-imagination, etc.

    Following your orientation example, should we start using verbs like combinate, temptate, and imaginate?

    Still other verbs tweak the spelling and add ‘-ication’ to become nouns: multiply-multiplication, pronounce-pronunciation, modify-modification, etc.

    Of course, just when you think you’ve found a rule, someone else finds exceptions. Welcome to English.

    I think that whichever word you choose reflects your education and place of upbringing, and is no cause for to demonize the other. I mean demonise.

    See?

  • David Warr

    Hi Kim!
    Great response! You are certainly correct. I grew up in Montreal to British parents. It seemed that orientate was the most common word in question when I grew up. I still see the word in British publications but hardly ever in North American publications. I also seem to prefer long vowel forms of words like tomato. Data with the long A seems more scientific than the short a sound in data. The short a in data seems more popular at the moment.

  • Martin

    It’s a French derivative, however, since Americans speak “American” and not English, why is the Oxford English Dictionary being brought into the conversation? TomARto /TomAYto etc etc. not to mention not only the mispronunciation of “Aluminium” but it’s spelling also. I am happy to accept the differences “across the pond” but please, PLEASE, could Americans stop saying they speak ENGLISH ?

  • Ivan

    Martin, Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, and anyone from the UK all speak English. Please don’t confuse “language” with “dialect”.

    While all the above speak English, they all use their own respective dialects of the same language. Words will exist and/or be used differently in different dialects.

  • Sarah

    I’m an American, and until recently I failed to realize that “orientate” was a legitimate form of the word “orient.” I thought it was one of many words that people produce with unnecessary extra syllables (along with “ironical,” “irregardless,” “conversate,” and “mis-chee-vee-ous” instead of “mischievous”).

    While I wholeheartedly support differences in dialect, I have a hard time understanding why people would want to lengthen a word. Adding an extra phoneme to make a production easier makes sense (like how most people say “warmpth” and “hampster” instead of “warmth” and “hamster” because adding the bilabial stop makes production easier). But adding a whole syllable? That’s more difficult to produce, especially in running speech. I don’t get it.

  • Susan

    Thanks for this, I literally Googled ‘is orientate a word’ and ended up here. I kept hearing it (I’m in the U.S.) and thought it was wrong. Now I know it’s quasi-wrong-but so am I!

  • David A. Warr

    Quasi-wrong? I am surprised this thread is still generating interest. I thought Americans spoke American English which is still English after all.
    Orient will always seem wrong.

  • Rob

    ‘Orientate’ is standard British English and standard in all British colonies. I have said it all my life and so do most other English speakers outside of the US. ‘Orient’ means the East, to me and most of the English speaking world. I had never dreamt that anyone could consider ‘orientate’ wrong before I came across the odd (pun intended) sites like this one.

  • Rob

    Ok, I should have said “former British colonies”.

  • imraan

    Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa…’former’ British colony. Here we’ve always said ‘orientated’ (unless you were disorientated (disoriented?)). Irregardless of which one is your favorite (what were they smoking!) , my favourite is orientate. It IS better than Americanese…

  • Ward

    Martin,

    >not to mention not only the mispronunciation of “Aluminium” but it’s spelling also

    It is not a mispronunciation. The word was first called “alumium.” Then it was renamed “aluminum”, which saw use on both continents. It was further renamed “aluminium” which managed to stick with Brits. The only thing that happened was that Americans stuck with the older spelling (I suppose everyone thought “alumium” sounds weird and nobody uses that oldest variant).

    Also, you used the wrong “its.” It’s = it is. When chiding and correcting others, it’s best to ascertain whether one’s own house is in order first.

  • Zack

    Language is an art and continues to be created.

    – After orientation I feel disoriented.
    – I still need to be orientated so I can feel oriented.
    – I am waiting for someone to orient me.
    – I will orientate you later.

    Orient/Oriented sounds archaic and pertaining to the east/Chinese/oriental. Many readers (not judging) may be slower to interpret the context when coming across the use of “orient” instead of “orientate”

    The use of orientate/orientated has support – it seems – from the use and pronunciation of orientation. The use of orientate/orientated may send a quicker message to readers because of the similar pronunciation of orientation. Even if it is backing into the verb. It is creative in the way it connects the use and sound of words and their relevant uses in this day.

  • Raul S.T.

    Martin, how can you demand that Americans stop saying they speak English? Every dialectal group in England only should be demanding the very same from others if you were right.

  • John

    Im not sure when americans got the idea to spell things differently, anything British people say is correct, the English invented English after all

  • trav

    People, I just happened upon this discussion and, by George, has it been entertaining!! My daughter and I laughed our eyes dry with your linguistic antics. And Ward, there was total hilarity with your
    “You used the wrong “its.” It’s = it is. When chiding and correcting others, it’s best to ascertain whether one’s own house is in order first.” Dastardly stuff!!
    Although I live in America now, I grew up in a former British colony so I had to be very intentional about leaving out the “u” out of words like color and neighbor. However, I can’t say that in all my growing up years I’ve ever heard the word “orientate” and thought well of it. Some British announcer guy just said it a bit ago and the search led me here. I learned alot. Or is it a lot? 🙂 Really. Thanks all!!

  • anthony hartnell

    orientate is wrong because it is a back formation of the noun, orientation.

  • tracey

    Living in the ‘former British colony’ of Australia I would definitely say ‘orientate’. I had a chuckle with my spouse whose ancestors were from ‘the Orient’. We both agree to ‘orient’ oneself is to do things in the Chinese way….and we do a lot of that too.

  • Paul

    I saw in the Oxford English Dictionary that the presently UK – preferred form of the verb participle, oriented, has evolved in preference to orientated. The OED did not find such a form of the verb before mid – 19th Century, apparently, and the Merriam – Webster doesn’t show the use of orientated before about 1950. So, language evolves, not too big a deal, although I still really don’t like to hear or read “orientated” in American dialect. I’m trying to get used to it, just as I’m still trying to avoid cringing at the pronunciation of data with a short a, the misuse of that word, data, for datum, and other constructions or pronunciations that seem odd to me. However, orientated apparently is here to stay, so I’m not going to write any more crabby comments about its use to AP writers (often the worst for grammar and spellings). I will persist, however, in my crabby notes about really bad grammar and spelling, and suggest that writers use spelling and grammar checkers where they are available. I wish they were available here.

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