Preventative vs. Preventive

By Mark Nichol

When you wish to refer to something that serves to prevent, which is the correct adjectival or noun form, preventative, or preventive? The latter word is more commonly cited, appearing by a ratio of three to one, but the longer variant is also widely employed, and with increasing frequency. Might, however, does not necessarily make right. So, which one is better?

Both words date back to the 1600s, and the latter predates the former by a mere several decades. It retains the upper hand, however, for two reasons: First, the extra syllable is superfluous, and second, it is supported both by quality as well as quantity: The most respected publications favor preventive, while preventative is more likely to appear in print and online sources with less rigorous editorial standards. That’s a good enough reason to favor preventive.

What about similar word pairs such as exploitative and exploitive, which both refer to underhandedly using someone or something to one’s advantage? Like preventative and preventive, the first attestations of these words are only a few decades apart, though they are much more recent coinages; exploitative goes back only to the late nineteenth century, and exploitive is less than a hundred years old. But there’s a significant difference between this word pair and the previous one: In this case, the longer form is widely considered the standard, and exploitive is the inferior alternative.

Fortunately, the correct form of most words ending in -ive is obvious, as with cumulative, formative, and representative. But other endings can confuse, such as with the question of whether to use orient or orientate as a verb. In this case, each refers to facing the east, though only orient correctly applies to other references to setting or directing.

Likewise, there is the case of systematic and systemic, both of which are valid terms, but with mostly distinct senses: Though both terms obviously pertain to systems, only systematic also refers to classification and to coherent, methodical, thorough procedures. Systemic generally connotes only biological systems and is neutral in value, as opposed to the qualitative senses of systematic.

In summary, as a careful writer, research proper usage for word endings in order to avoid employing the incorrect of two similar words or a less favored variant.

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14 Responses to “Preventative vs. Preventive”

  • Karla

    And alternatively and alternately, different meanings.

  • Francois

    Preventive is an adjective. E.g. “Take preventive action and wear a helmet.”
    Preventative is a noun. E.g. “A helmet is a preventative.”

    Or, “He places a preventive plug in the hole, to prevent water from leaking into the room, just in case it rains. The plug is now a preventative”

    This seems simple enough to me. Most dictionaries do not make this distinction, but then dictionaries are not there to preserve, but rather to publish what is popular (which, of course, has little to do with good language).

  • thebluebird11

    Oy, I rage against “orientate.” And on the subject, “commentate.” Yes, I know that this is a losing battle and that by now, commentating has come to have a specific and separate meaning from comment. But it’s so…self-serving. “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a commentator.” Ewwwwww.

  • Faith Freeewoman

    Oh, please tell me orientate isn’t winning!

    It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong … For some reason wronger than other “errors” which are slipping into common usage.

    Had to laugh about thebluebird11’s commentary about commentating.

  • Dean

    I believe preventive is more correct for use as an adjective, such as “preventive medicine”, but preventative works better as a noun, “he used the potion as a preventative.”

  • Frank

    I’ve subscribed to Daily Writing Tips for several weeks now, and I look forward to your discussions from an etymological perspective.

    Regarding today’s post, I agree that preventive is preferable as an adjective, e.g. preventive medicine. But I’ve come across preventative as a noun: an agent or a procedure that acts to prevent something from occurring. E.g.: Daily doses of Vitamin C (1000 mg) is recommended as a preventative for viral infections.

    What do you think?

  • Rosie Lee

    SO glad I found this site today. And timely, too: Orientate is on my ‘worst words’ list!

    I feel like I’ve found my roots. Nice to find others that cherish the language as I do. I guess, in this group, I won’t be the lone grammar-nazi. Nice!

  • Lena

    I think there’s a clear distinction between both the words as illustrated by Francois, and for some reason orient sounds better than orientate!

  • Sally

    ‘Systemic’ simply means “inherent in the system itself.”

    I can quite logically write, “The failures of capitalism can be ascribed to its systemic contradictions (overproduction and underconsumption brought on by the drive to maximize profits while minimizing the wage-bill and then attempting to bridge the gap through credit) and its systemic assumptions (self-interest, greed, aggressive competition).

    These factors lead to systemic crises – constant boom-and-bust cycles, the fall in the rate of capital (which causes capitalists to step-up the rate of exploitation) and the ever-increasing concentration of capital into fewer hands (which no quantity of anti-trust laws can halt, especially when capitalists can buy … er, lobby … the politicians who make those laws) – and to systemic behaviours like imperialism and war (over resources, markets and cheap labour).”

  • venqax

    I’m not sure what comparison you are making with systemic vs. systematic. They are distinct words with quite distinct meanings. Preventive vs preventative not so much. Despite the somewhat useful difference proposed by Francois, I don’t know of any authority for it. Compare healthy and healthful. A nice distinction can and practically should be made between the 2, but it is simply not there historically. In SAE, at least, preventive is strongly preferred in all cases.

    Orientate is different still. It is sub-standard, simply incorrect in American English. BUT, I think it IS standard in British. So, IF—and only if—the speaker/writer is using British English (or another that also accepts the -ATE ending), it has to be considered fine. Admittedly, to American ears it sounds as awful and illiterate as transportate or declarate.

  • mordantkitten

    This whole phenomenon has always made me want to claw at my face.

  • thebluebird11

    LOL@mordantkitten!
    -Definitely a difference between systemic (system-wide) and systematic (possessing a system; methodical).
    -I’m not keen on “preventative”; I will never use that word.
    I declarate, let me go transportate myself downstairs for something to ingestate.

  • Peter Wolf

    The discussion of “orientate” vs. “orient” ignores the difference between British and American usage. A Brit will normally use the back-formation “orientated,” for all that those of us on the other side of the pond might find it jarring.

  • Edgar Kerr

    The first time I heard “preventative” on network television is during a press coverage of one Royal Son who use the phrase “preventative measures.” The word “preventative” then became viral among the media. I took American English lessons from primary school to high school. Thereafter, I studied one year of college level English Literature based on British literary books that covered a wide range of era from the Legend of Beowulf to early Twentieth Century collections. At first, the sound of “preventative” was repulsive.

    From the root verb: to prevent, we normally add “-ive” to construct and adjective. So, the word “preventative” appears to originate from the verb: to preventate. I still have hope that humanity will preventate such a decline of a living language like English.

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