Monday, February 23, 2009


I own multiple print and electronic dictionaries, style guides and usage manuals because I am both self-conscious about my own language use and sometimes judgmental of other people’s. As with food, math, and house keeping, the linguistic and syntactic functional usually satisfies me. I am deeply thrilled and admiring, though, of people whose efforts in all these areas transcend the functional and become artful.

I also enjoy work in government and enjoy electronic communication, both areas given to bizarre shorthand and unpleasant neologisms, for example, congrats, proactive and the tendency to create verbs via the suffix –ize (e.g., utilize). I have been thinking a lot about the latter issue lately, specifically because I have been listening to committee hearings that rely on the word incentivize. It is an ugly word, for sure, but I feel myself softening on, even sort of defending, its use.

Unlike some other frustrating neologisms, I can't think of an existing word that expresses the same thing. For instance, congrats is a clear and (to my way of thinking) somewhat lazy way of congratulating someone (or, perhaps, an enthusiastic way of congratulating someone for an accomplishment or event you are only mildly impressed by); proactive in all contexts means the same as active; utilize just means use.

Incentivize, though, seems, different. Its entry in Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2nd Edition, reads, in full:

incentivize; incent, vb.

These neologisms -- dating from the mid-1970s -- have become vogue words, especially in American business jargon. E.g.:

o "And you know, we shouldn't incent [read 'provide incentives for'] all the wrong behaviors. Right now, what we're doing is incenting [read encouraging] young girls to leave home, to not marry the person they're . . . having a child with because they won't get the welfare check if they're married." Jack Thomas, "Ann Romney's Sweetheart Deal," Boston Globe, 20 Oct. 1994, at 61.

o "Today it is management -- usually incentivized by stock options and the like [read 'having stock options and other incentives'] -- that seeks to be recognized by
institutional shareholders." Benjamin Mark Cole, "New Economic Pressures
Force Banks to Cut Costs, Consolidate," L.A. Bus. J., 24 Mar. 1997, at 29.

"Incentivize," an "-ize" barbarism, is more than twice as common as "incent," a back-formation. There is no good incentive to use either one.

The phrase providing incentives for... is, I agree, ideal. This usage fidelity has drawbacks, though. For instance, in a discussion of education policy frequently repeating the phrase gets repetitive and cumbersome. It also obscures a policy’s intent, which is not really to offer or provide but to elicit a result by promise of reward.

A brief, unscientific survey of some colleagues indicates that induce (which seems like a reasonable synonym to me) connotes childbirth to people. Hayden (and Garner, above) suggested encourage, but in all my dictionaries encourage does something like inspire hope, courage or confidence; there is no suggestion of material compensation (an integral component in incentivizing) for the inspiration.


ryan said...

My favorite -ize suffix word is catastrophize. As in, "Stop catastrophizing, your internet connection will be back up in a minute. The world won't end." Which is, actually, a real word.

bryan h. said...

I'm trying like hell to pronounce that word, but I keep getting tripped up somewhere between syllables 2 and 4. Can you offer a pronunciation diagram or phonetic spelling?

ryan said...

Ka-tas-tra-phi-zing. Eh?

J053F said...

I totally agree on the watchmen part :)
But the community show. i got to watch that show sometimes. Which channel is it on?

eileen said...

This post actually makes me hate incentivize just a teeny bit less. Thank you.