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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57 Responses to “Is That Even a Word?”

  • Lindsay

    And ‘literally’ has been so exploited for so long, the only dignified thing it can do is retire. Shame. A good word, she was.

  • Kayfra

    Sherbert, my fav. As to functionality being acceptable,thebluebird11defends prejudicially(a word?). What’s wrong with saying functions poorly or well. Your reasoning fits all the -ality and -ability made-up words. Sorry, they all sound somewhere between foolish and high-falutin’.

  • 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…

  • venqax

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

  • 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

  • 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!

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    I recommend collegiality in place of (ugh) colleagueship.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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”?

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • Joe

    Kudos to @Jill for the fine grammar catch.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ray

    Is that can of Gas really inflammable?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jill

    “…an clipped form of until…”

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

  • 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.

  • 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

    @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 🙂

  • 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?

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