Is That Even a Word?

By Mark Nichol

No authoritarian authority exists that determines whether a given word is valid or bogus. In any language, there’s a complex and imperfect vetting procedure; at least in English, most serious writers agree on the correct or preferred form of a word that is one of two or more variants or on whether a word is acceptable at all. Here’s a list of words that have been under scrutiny in this approval process:

1. Administrate: A back-formation of administration and an unnecessary extension of administer

2. Commentate: A back-formation of commentator and an unnecessary extension of comment

3. Dimunition: Erroneous; the correct form is diminution (think of diminutive)

4. Exploitive: A younger, acceptable variant of exploitative

5. Firstly: As with secondly and thirdly, erroneous when enumerating points; use first and so on

6. Heighth: Rarely appears in print, but a frequent error in spoken discourse (Why isn’t height modeled on the form of depth, length, and width? Because it doesn’t shift in spelling and pronunciation from its associated term, tall, like the others, which are derived from deep, long, and wide, do. Neither do we say or write weighth.)

7. Irregardless: An unnecessary extension of regardless on the analogy of irrespective but ignoring that regardless, though it is not an antonym of regard, already has an antonymic affix

8. Miniscule: A common variant of minuscule, but widely considered erroneous

9. Orientate: A back-formation of orientation and an unnecessary extension of orient

10. Participator: Erroneous; the correct form is participant

11. Preventative: A common and acceptable variant of preventive

12. Societal: A variant of social with a distinct connotation (for example, “social occasion,” but “societal trends”)

13. Supposably: An erroneous variant of supposedly

14. ’Til: Also rendered til and till, an clipped form of until that is correct but informal English; use the full word except in colloquial usage

15. Undoubtably: An erroneous variant of undoubtedly

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55 Responses to “Is That Even a Word?”

  • Jon

    From a British English perspective, I’d have to disagree with the idea of ‘commentate’ being an unnecessary back-formation.

    I’m not sure about terminology of sports events in American English, but the presenter providing information about an event in the UK is a ‘commentator’, with their role being to ‘commentate’ which is distinct from being called upon to simply ‘comment’.

  • thebluebird11

    I have to agree with Jon. I hate sports commentators, but they do more than just comment; they (gag) commentate. Ad nauseam.
    I also think that administrate is not the same as administer. If you are an administrator and you’re doing your job, you are administrating; therefore, you administrate. If you are a nurse, you would not administrate a medication, you would administer (give) it.
    Orientate is terrible, as is preventative; neither will ever fall from my lips. I suppose that I should therefore go along with exploitive (versus exploitative)…OK, I will just have to get used to it.
    I can’t say I’ve ever heard the word participator, and although it does seem to duplicate the already-established participant, it seems like a legitimate word, and not without precedent in terms of construction (e.g. a person who audits is an auditor), so I don’t think I’d even blink if I heard it. I can’t say that I see any nuance that makes it different from participant, but maybe there is, or could be. I’d have to mull it over.
    Many of the other examples are just ignorant misspellings or mispronunciations that unfortunately have taken root, like weeds, and so should be yanked and tossed on a compost pile; good riddance!

  • Mark

    Someone needs to tackle “conversate” which is becoming a common substitute for “converse”.

  • phanmo

    I particularly dislike “orientate”, although I had to keep quiet about it when I lived in the UK.
    I would tend to agree that “commentate” doesn’t have the same connotation as “comment”.

  • Michael

    Nothing wrong with ‘firstly’, certainly in British English. Source: any dictionary.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yesterday, I heard a woman in a discussion program on American TV say “psychologize”. (“I am not going to try to psychologize him…”)
    Could it be that she really meant “psychoanalyze”?
    In any case, it was a ghastly nonword that she said.

    Don’t journalism sudents take any courses in psychology in college?
    It seems to me that such courses would help them to understand people like Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Jacques Chirac.

  • Mary

    Ooh, I love these words, these unlooked-for crumbs the universe tosses us to allow us to feel, occasionally, superior.

    Years ago, I worked as a copy editor in the equity research department of a very well-known investment banking firm, tidying up reports written by people who were making orders of magnitude more money than I was. There was one fellow who was fond of the word “furthermoreover.” Wouldn’t give it up. He’d let the edit stand, but the word would crop of a few weeks later.

    The same guy would conjure up bizarre if not meaningless metaphors, like “a seat-of-the-pants rule of thumb,” and would complain to my boss when I made corrections to such constructions as “wax eloquently.” He tended to leave out important parts of sentences. Like, the verb. “I write for content, not for style!” he remonstrated on more than one occasion. “If it doesn’t have a verb, it doesn’t have any content,” I explained to him. “They don’t pay me enough to supply you with verbs.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some people seem to have no objection to adding unnecessary words to English.
    I once read that English is the only language that has a thesarus or needs one. This is not 100% true because I had seen and used the same sort of a book in German.
    However, it is true that German has about twice as many words in common use than French or Spanish do, and English has three times as many. Here are some statistics:
    A heavy, compresensive dictionary in English has about 300,000 entries in in. A heavy, compresensive dictionary in German has about 200,000 entries in in, but the same thing for French has only 100,000.
    So, a thesarus in German is quite justified, too.
    In English, if we wanted to make a dictionary that includied the specialized terminology of chemistry, biology, engineering, psychology, and law, that one would have about 700,000 words – for a grand total of one million.

    Hence, we have hundreds of thousands of useful words in English already, so why is it that some people insist on “justifying” even more and extraneous ones? Why not make use of the ample resources that we already have?
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Mary: That is delightful and so very true:
    “If it doesn’t have a verb, it doesn’t have any content,” I explained to him.
    So true, so true, so true!
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: “comprehensive”. My mistake.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning the nonword “heighth”: Rarely appears in print, but a frequent error in spoken discourse (Why isn’t height modeled on the form of depth, length, and width?…)
    Also “breadth” and “girth”. These were left out, and is it true that many people do not know what they mean any more?

    In the part of the country that I grew up in, the phrase “length, width, and breadth” was common, even if this is redundant.
    Also, the U.S. Postal Service has had specifications like “The combined length and girth of the package shall not exceed 72 inches.”
    D.A.W.

  • bramsay

    ‘Capability’ is another one that bothers me. It’s surely just an attempt to sound fancier than ‘ability’. “We have the capability to do this.” “We have the ability to do this.” or, more simple and direct: “We can do this.” Have I missed something here?

  • Melissa

    I have one quibble: etymologists tell us that “till” (but not “til” or “’til”) has been used in speech and print for centuries as a synonym for “until.” As for the rest, however, I’m delighted to see those ugly back-formations debunked, and this column may be the first time I’ve seen “supposably” and “undoubtably” pointed out as errors. I’ve shuddered at them for years! Mary, you’re quite right. These crumbs do make us feel superior–and I would probably have a ball working with you! I, too, had a co-worker with some strange locutions. She used to tell people that a document would be “withcoming”–which I suppose was her portmanteau for “forthcoming” and “coming with.”

  • Roberta B.

    Great list! I can agree that all of these words sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to me regardless of some of the coments above. I think words like comentate might have been used initially as sarcasm (possibly, also, administrate) since the comments or management actions by some of the subjects would not truly reflect the appropriate verb.

    Another grating word to me is “athleticism.” Is that even a word? .~

  • Gerald Albertson

    Would you please devote a post to the often used phrase: most/more importantly. My fillings hurt every thime I hear it because I think it should be: most/more important.

    “My fillings hurt, but more importantly, the phrase sounds incorrect.”
    vs
    “My fillings hurt, but more important, the phrase sounds incorrect.”

    Thanks,
    G.A.

  • Helen

    Speaking from the UK – commentate is most definitely different from comment (as Jon and Bluebird clearly explain).

    Yet another example of our two countries divided by a single language no doubt!

  • Mary

    @Melissa, I agree with you about ’till’ — the marriage service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (that’s the missal for the Church of England, for any heathens here present) includes the promise to love and cherish, &tc., ‘…till death us do part.’ This same ceremony, of course, requires the bride to promise to obey the groom, so you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. ‘Till’ didn’t become ‘until’ until (or till) 1982, when a lot of other questionable improvements were also invoked.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary: LOL about verbs.
    Re: Till/’til: My personal preference is to differentiate between them. Till is what you do to soil, and you can do it ’til the cows come home. To me, clipping off the “un” (from until) necessitates the apostrophe, just as you do with ’em (them), ’cause (because), and other words, especially since those words might be confused with their clipped forms (em and cause are both words in their own right).
    As far as adding “unnecessary” words to the English language, it reminds me of when I play Scrabble, and my rack holds all these letters that I can combine into something, albeit not an acceptable English word, and I think to myself, “Well, it’s not a word, but it should be!” And who knows…someday it might be! There is always room for more.
    @Mark: Might I remind you of “lateralize” and “skillable” LOL

  • Mary

    @bluebird — and ‘incentivize’ and ‘incent’ — yippee!

  • DHH

    A great list!
    Start the countdown: the word “functionality” sends me into orbit. “Function” is not good enough. We must have increased (not even greater) functionality.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary: I’ve heard incentivize; I’m sure that there are those who would say, “We have the word ‘motivate,’ why do we need incentivize?” I suppose that’s true, but again, precedent has been set in terms of construction (theory/theorize, incentive/incentivize), and I believe there is always room for more words, so I’m OK with that. But incent? What is that! If I saw that I’d be incensed LOL

  • Matt Gaffney

    We’re used to “orienting” ourselves in the U.S., but the use of “orientate” ought not to be dismissed outright. It is, in fact, an architectural term used by church builders. The idea is that the entrance of a Christian church had to face the east to mark Christ’s Resurrection. It’s use in that very, very narrow architectural sense expanded through poor education and, I suppose, a wish to appear sophisticated, to supplant “orient”—at least in the U.K. So, “orientate” is valid, but usually misused.

  • thebluebird11

    @Matt: Interesting, the use of orientate specifically meaning to face east. I never knew the church aspect of it. A synagogue places its ark (which house the Torahs) on the east wall, facing Israel and the Holy Temple, or what’s left of it, and when we pray, even if there is no ark, we face east. So, by your definition, we orientate ourselves. I dislike the word, but I can accept it if used in this one sense. Thank you for this little pearl!

  • Carole Raschella

    Love this post! It hits several of my personal pet peeves (I have pet dogs too), and the comments are a perfect extension of the article itself. No verb – no content. So succinct and so correct! Don’t know about “athleticism,” and this is more about pronunciation than spelling, but “ath-uh-lete,” “nucular,” and “realator” grind my teeth. And then there’s “vehickle.” My favorite additions to the discussion, though, are “anyways,” and “its/it’s.” You already have my other two biggies…”heighth” and “supposably.”

  • Carole Raschella

    Well, I’ll be…”Peeve,” even “pet peeve,” are both in the dictionary! I knew “peevish” was there, but not the other two. I learn something new every day, especially here. Thank you for that!

  • Mary

    @Carole — I can picture MBAs everywhere flipping a coin every time they need to decide between “its” and “it’s”.

  • Wendy Flynn

    I’d like to add one to the list. The use of the word respect (or disrespect) as an action verb. As in, “He disrespected me.” It drives me nuts!

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary: And do you want fries with that?

  • Don

    Regarding “till,” I agree with Mary. It does not appear to be a contraction of “until”; according to Merriam-Webster online, both formations go back to Middle English.

    By coincidence, another potential entry for your list appeared in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “reknown.” It was part of a headline, no less: “Last Andrews sister dies; reknown for ‘Bugle Boy.'” It’s actually two mistakes in one; the choice should have been “renowned.”

  • thebluebird11

    @Don: ’til is not a contraction, it’s an elision.

  • Mary

    This just in — I do proofreading/copy editing at home, and today, in a letter to college presidents from a college president…. Are you ready… wait for it…. here it comes… “colleagueship.” What would you suggest to the writer as a substitute? I’m interested. Assuming he doesn’t want to be laughed out of the faculty caf?

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary: After looking online, apparently this is a word. But if you don’t like it, give the context in which he used it, and we can come up with a substitute term for you 🙂

  • Carol

    I have to admit to not having enough time to read all the posts, but my scanning did not uncover a single instance of someone objecting to “authoritarian authority.” Really? Is there such a thing as a nonauthoritarian authority?

  • thebluebird11

    @Carol: I suppose that someone who is in a position of authority but is not very good at the job, is too laid back, timid, unaggressive or whatever, might be a nonauthoritarian authority. Kind of an oxymoron.

  • Jill

    “…an clipped form of until…”

    Always fun to see a typo on a site called Daily Writing Tips.

  • thebluebird11

    @DHH: Function and functionality are not the same. Something may function, yet have poor functionality. Functionality is a term commonly used in the I.T. milieu, and refers to a crucial quality of apps/programs that make them utile, human-friendly, etc. Something either functions or it doesn’t, but there are different degrees of functionality.

  • Mary

    Then there’s “modality” vs. “mode.” I have to admit, my eyes glaze over whenever I hear that one, a conditioned reflex from hearing about alternative medical treatments whose efficacy seems to reside mainly in the willingness of the patient to believe they’re getting better. Webst. Unabridged finds a home for its use, in that sense, in the realm of physical therapy.

  • Jean Coldwell

    Since Mary mentioned contractions (its/it’s), your/you’re is one on my list. And I’s? As in Bob and I’s house. Really? Realator and nucular. Arghh! I would also add of-ten instead of making the t silent.

  • Curtis

    Dimunition: dummy rounds.

    “Heighth” seems perfectly natural and nice to me, since it goes so well with those other measurement terms that end in ‘th.’ I do recognize that it isn’t always appropriate, though. Using it everywhere would be the heighth of ignorance.

  • Ray

    Is that can of Gas really inflammable?

  • Tom

    @Carol: I blanched at “authoritarian authority”. It’s not really redundant because they don’t mean the same thing. A grammarian in North Korea might be an authoritarian authority. You’d think a site called Daily Writing Tips would be more authoritative.

    @Ray: The fact that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing is one of the great perversities of the English language. But I can see how the two seeming opposites could have converged on the same meaning. If you can set flame to something it’s flammable. If you can inflame something (as opposed to someone) it’s flammable.

    In other news…

    “Orientate” is indeed perfectly acceptable in British English. But then they don’t distinguish between “that” and “which”. They’re actually interchangeable in British English.

    Those who use the non-word “incent” would probably be surprised to learn that the verb form of incentive is “incite”.

    My pet peeve is the comma splice however most people evidently don’t know that you shouldn’t join two independent clauses with “however”. Comma splices can incent a riot among prescriptivists like me.

  • David

    My MS Word 2007 is happy to accept most of these words. It only objects to Dimunition, Heighth, Irregardless, Supposably, ’Til, and Undoubtably. Firefox is happy to let me use irregardless.

  • Joe

    Kudos to @Jill for the fine grammar catch.

  • Tim

    This posting gives poor advice to writers who struggle with the language. I have no opinion on any of these words because, borrowing an Americanism, my opinion isn’t worth squat. There are well-defined authorities for word usage (like “squat”): they’re called dictionaries. It makes no difference what I or you think should be a word. Encouraging writers, especially novice ones, to think that their opinion matters is poor advice. If in doubt, look it up.

  • Bob

    ‘Inflammable’ is not saying ‘un-flammable’ – it just sounds like it.

    ‘Function’ is to ‘functionality’ as ‘intention’ is to ‘intentionality’ – all real words with clear definitions – don’t attempt to ‘leverage’ their usage.

    Ironically, Wikipedia doesn’t agree with me:

    Functionality
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Redirect page
    Jump to: navigation, search
    #REDIRECT: Function

    Did my father make up the pseudo-word “undisirregardless” to mock those who believe “irregardless” is a word, or not?

    Inquiring/enquiring minds wish to know. Till we meet again…

  • Christina

    I used to work in communications at a church and in calendars and literature the leaders insisted on using the word “fellowshipping” or using “fellowship” as a verb. I realize this is accepted in online dictionaries, etc. as acceptable, as they often pointed out to me, but it just seems WRONG. Anyone know how fellowshipping became a thing? Is it just religion speak? Can I say instead of socializing that I am “friendshipping”?

  • venqax

    Great list. I have always advanced the general rule that a new word is justified if it fills a genuine need, and conforms with the overall rules of usage when it is used. So, commentate, and societal would seem legitimate contenders to me. They do have nuanced meanings apart from comment or social with which they fill a need, albeit somewhat narrow. Administrate I wouldn’t give the same recognition. I’d say an administrator still administers his program. I know orientate is standard in British, but it is an unnecessary elongation (the verb is to orient) so not acceptable. Likewise preventative, and firstly (tho I wouldn’t say that is wrong). OTOH, by the same token I’d say exploitive is preferable to exploitative. We exploit. We don’t exploitate.

    Heighth, miniscule, dimunition are simply misspellings based on bad analogies (Febuary, momento) or bad pronunciation, so are simply inexcusable.

    Supposably could probably be defended as a word— a flying pig isn’t even supposable. But when it is simply used mistakenly for supposedly, it is simply wrong. Undoubtably could probably be distinguished too, but it’s not worth the confusion.

    The problem with irregardless is that if it were a word, it would mean the opposite of the way it is used— not regardless.

    Till seems fine on it’s own, but until is best for formal writing.

  • venqax

    @ Tim: You’re too modest. YOU are giving the worst of advice regarding use of the language. Dictionaries are descriptive, as has been pointed out ad nauseam here. They rarely or never speak definitively on anything beyond what is common. Places like THIS are the very places people should go if they want a real substantive answer about English usage. Likewise more authoritative specialized sources on orthography, orthoepy, style, etc. Dictionaries? I hope you don’t have heart surgery performed by the school nurse or at the local first aid clinic.

  • venqax

    @Christina: Yes, as you suspect the verb “to fellowship” is church-ese. It is very common here in the US, especially in evangelical circles. It is appropriate, really, for internal church communications because it has a specific and well-understood meaning for them that nothing else precisely expresses. A term of art, so to speak. But is it probably best left out of formal or mainstream writing. Compare the way they use the term “to witness” as intransitive as well.

  • The Wet One

    For my part, I find it exceedingly odd that the word “wayfinding” is not included in dictionaries. It’s a term with decades of architectual discussion and science (heck there’s even international agreements on wayfinding. That’s one reason why airports and their wayfinding signage is the same everywhere you go). I guess lexicographers only work so fast. Still, 5 or 6 decades seems a long enough time to recognize that wayfinding is in fact a word. Dictionary.com shouldn’t be that much faster than Oxford or Merriam-Webster should it?

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    I recommend collegiality in place of (ugh) colleagueship.

  • Mark Nichol

    Wet:

    I was, until recently, ignorant of the wondrous word wayfinding — a solution for the problem of a concept that I thought had no one-word label. Thanks for enlightening me!

  • Sally

    As I noted in another post, these usages are often the creations of politicians, celebrities or economists – one doesn’t have to be terribly well-spoken, or well-educated, to be any of these.

    The idea of aligning church doors, and graves, toward the east, whence the sun (the son?)* rises, is paralleled by the fact that, when we die, we are – or were – said to “go west.” During the Cold War, we learned that the big continent in the west was our ‘friend’ and our ‘saviour,’ so now things that no longer function have to imitate the ‘Losses’ on business charts and “go south.”

    ‘Signage’ always reminds me of ‘sewage.’

    ——-

    *Yes, I am making a pun AND a theological point. :O

  • venqax

    Mary, given the context I’d offer collegeassity, but proper vetting would probably reject it as uselessly broad.

  • Janet

    Bob, you and my husband may have some common ancestry. His father mockingly used “undisirregardless”, too!

    Sad to say, irregardless may have made its way into standard English…

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