Is Positivity a Word?

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A reader questions the acceptability of the word positivity:

Is “positivity” a real word? I have found it on a couple of on-line dictionary sources, but it sounds so wrong and makes me cringe every time I hear it. I feel that people think that if negativity is a word, then the antonym must be positivity, and not positiveness.

Until I received this query I’d never questioned the reality of the word positivity. Afterwards I discovered that the question appears to be a common one on the Web. I don’t understand why this should be so.

The suffix -ivity occurs in a great many common English words. A few of the most familiar:

The suffix -ivity is added to an adjective to make it into an abstract noun. The suffix appears in borrowings and adaptations of Latin and French words from the end of the Old English period; it becomes common after the Norman Conquest: nativity (1225), captivity (1380). When the adjective ends in -il or -le, the suffix -ility is added to the adjective: humility (1315), durability (1374), ability (1398).

The suffix -ness is the more usual suffix used to form abstract nouns nowadays, but -ivity is still used in scientific contexts to form abstract nouns denoting a specific property of a material: incendivity, elastivity.

According to the OED, positivity predates negativity in English by 167 years. In 1659, the reference is to the “positivity of sin”; in 1826, Coleridge speaks of the “Spirit of Negativity.”

The reader quoted above feels that positiveness is the “real” word and that positivity should not be used at all. Many speakers do use the word positiveness to mean the quality of looking on the bright side, but others see a difference in connotation between positivity and positiveness.

For speakers who see a difference, positivity means the quality of looking on the bright side:

If you approach the day with enthusiasm, positivity and openness, usually you’ll get the same back.

Positiveness, on the other hand, is seen by some as a synonym for dogmatism:

These relations are so extensive, that positiveness, or dogma, is scarcely anywhere free from the liability to contradiction.

As far as I can tell, there’s no reason to despise the word positivity.

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, positivity is far more common in print than positiveness. Indeed, every example of the word positiveness in the Word file of this article has a red line under it.

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21 thoughts on “Is Positivity a Word?”

  1. “Positivity” is a technical word in CHEMISTRY.
    To be more specific, it occurs in the compound word
    “electropositivity”, which could be written as “electro-positivity”, probably by the British, with their love of hyphens.

    “Electropositivity” is a word that contrasts with “electronegativity”, which is used somewhat more often.
    Both words describe the ability of certain elements to form ionic compounds.
    Some of the elements that have the highest electropositivies are cesium (spelled “caesium” by the British), rubidium, potassium, sodium, lithium, strontium, barium, and magnesium. These elements are VERY reactive with the elements that have high electronegativities, such as the halides.

  2. The two nouns created from adjectives that sound so wrong to me are: “physicality” and “athleticism.” They just sound made-up and especially cumbersome the way I’ve usually heard them used.

  3. I understand aversion to words that simply sound terrible, even if correct. I can’t say I detect any problem with positivity, though, and it seems like its provenance is pretty well documented. In fact, in this case I would say “positiveness” is the ugly and somewhat suspect one, not the reverse. (Interestingly, my spellchecker just red-lined positiveness, but was fine with positivity.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say positiveness is not a legitimate word, too. Like Maeve indicates, I would reserve the 2 words to have distinct meanings.

    @Roberta B: There is a genuine place for nouns in the cases you cite. What would you suggest instead? Physicalness and athleticness certainly are not music to the ears. Physicality does obey “the rules” as MM points out, where as physicalivity would not. Nor would athleticivity be an improvement. Athleticacity? Physicalocity? This is problematic…al…

  4. Totally agree with venqax on both points, and certainly don’t see or hear anything wrong or ugly with athleticism or physicality.

    I have never used the word positiveness before, and can’t say I’ve ever heard it. I’ve only heard of the word positivity (true, I have a heavy science/medical background). If you reserve the word positiveness for, let’s say, someone’s attitude, I would sooner say someone is a positive person or has a positive attitude; I wouldn’t say she is known for her positiveness.

    @Maeve: Also have never heard of elastivity, but have heard of elasticity. Was the former a typo or is there such a word?

  5. bluebird,
    I am happy to say that this one is not a typo! When I began researching the article, I’d never heard of “elastivity” either. Apparently it’s an electrical term. Here’s the definition from the OED:

    “The property of a dielectric by virtue of which the flow of current between points having difference of potential is restrained.”

    Whatever that means.

  6. @Maeve: Haha, yes! “Whatever that means”! But it sure doesn’t sound as if it means the same as elasticity. Maybe D.A.W. will clarify for us… 😉

  7. How about “athletic ability” and “physical prowess” – each noun with a modifier, but to me it sounds less contrived.

  8. @Roberta: There are so many words that are precedents that I think you’re fighting a losing battle, although of course you’re free to do as you wish when you choose words to use in your own writing and speaking. I’m not the owner of this blog and don’t want to get carried away, but like athleticism, there is activism, feminism, etc. You can express in one word an idea that might otherwise require several words to get across. IMO, the word physicality does not necessarily imply physical prowess, the same way that there is a difference between sexuality and sensuality. Physicality is the emphasis or overemphasis on the physical aspect of the body (or the physical aspect of anything, really); it does not imply that there is any actual prowess involved.

  9. The word “elastivity” must be one of those rarely-used words
    in physics and engineering because I have never heard of it before. I daresay that “elastivity” is probably an obsolete word.

    If “The property of a dielectric by virtue of which the flow of current between points having difference of potential is restrained” is the definition, then we call that “resistivity” in North America (i.e. the United States, Canada, etc.)

    Resistivity is the mathematical reciprocal of “conductivity”.

    The British and the Irish sometimes have their own terminology, DESPITE the fact that the electrical and electronic industries in North America are far larger than they are in the British Isles. There are also far more school of electrical and
    electronic engineering here, and the leading journals and textbooks in these fields are published in the United States, and simultaneously in Canada.

    I can’t see any advantage in calling a kind of an electronic device a “valve” instead of a vacuum tube. At least we Americans have won out with “transistor”, “integrated circuit”, “induction motor”, and that the plural of “antenna” is “antennas” in electrical engineering and physics.

  10. less/fewer involves a clear distinction and makes me cringe when mis-used… especially in store signs:


    I/me is amusing, but most often occurs in ‘dialogue’ on TV and does reflect the way people do talk

    whom sounds pretentious and archaic… and do we need it?

  11. Agree with bluebird for the most part. “Physicality” simply means overemphasis on the physical, or physical properties, not prowess. If you wanted to say someone had physical prowess with the word physicality, you would have to say his action showed good, or well-developed, or somehow legitimate or “high quality” physicality which would be made difficult by the definition’s component of overemphasis. “The physicality of moving a body makes it unlikely it was done by the one-armed man”. Or, “the physicality of the Otto character makes him by turns funny and annyoing.” I bet your really hate physicalistic!

  12. @ David Logan: See the May 7th article, 50 Words or Less.

    I agree that “whom” doesn’t serve any purpose other than distinguishing the speaker’s social characteristics. “What” works just fine and without confusion as both a subject and an object of a verb:

    Who broke the window?
    What broke the window?

    Whom does Mary love?
    What does Mary love?


  13. @ venqax – I’ve seen “wham” used by Robert Burns; I think “Scots Wha Hae” is the name of the poem. Time for a comeback?

  14. @dragonwielder: Good point. But in Scots *wham* means whom to *wha* which means who. But it seems like those are both relatively archaic. Most Scots you see written (don’t know about spoken) nowadays seems to use *fa* for who and *whom* for whom. In either case, though, I don’t think Scots distinguishes forms of what (whit), just like English.

  15. It offends me to use these lazy terms such as positivity, physicality etc .
    I object to people in my company using them and I correct them. I hate BBC commentators using them. It discourages me.

    Certainly it may take an additional word to add to the sentence but I prefer that scenario to such misuse and lazy bastardisation of a wonderful language.

  16. Despite current usage, I prefer the word ‘positiveness’ to ‘positivity’. I accept ‘negativity’ without feeling that these abstract nouns should necessarily conform. If they do, the result is to tidy up the difference between a Latin derivation and an Anglo-Saxon suffix; to rationalize, morphologically speaking, or make word forms consistent. As a word ‘positiveness’ may be thought morphologically inferior to ‘goodness’, if goodness is pure Anglo-Saxon.

    Meanwhile I feel that the 17th c phrase, ‘the positivity of sin’, if given as a demonstration of the acceptability of the form of the word as used today, may then have had a technical – and, specifically, a theological – meaning which makes it distinct. Unfortunately, the source of the phrase is not supplied which would therefore require further research in order to try and confirm my hunch.

    On the other hand, I do not see how the word ‘positiveness’ can understand ‘dogmatism’, although one may appear positive about teaching which from other perspectives may be considered dogma. The outtake offered without acknowledging the source does not in my view necessarily mean that positiveness must have to do with being dogmatic. ‘Posit’ lies behind the word ‘positive’ and may inform ‘positivism’ in philosophy and this contributes to the wide range of different meanings and associations ‘positive’ may have, as in the phrase ‘proof positive’. The article posits the acceptability of ‘positivity’ morphologically since the 17th century as a synonym for the human quality also known as ‘positiveness’ and does not acknowledge the possibility that then it might have had another sense particular to the context in which it was used.

  17. I don’t think I had ever heard the word, “positivity” before 30 years ago. Was there one famous individual who brought this word into common usage?

  18. Maggie Elig,
    As noted in the article, the first recorded use of “positivity” is from 1659. The OED gives examples from the nineteenth century. The Google Ngram Viewer shows a rise in usage beginning in the 1940s.

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