Episode 271: April 14, 2011
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Last month I was on a call-in radio program, and one of the callers asked about the words “commentate” and “conversate.” She hadn’t even thought “conversate” was a word until a friend of hers used it, and she laughed, thinking it was a joke, only to realize her friend was using it in all seriousness. She and another caller also brought up the word “orientate.” These three words have something in common, and it’s not just that they all end in “-ate” and people wonder about their legitimacy. They also were all formed by a process called back-formation. Back-formation isn’t always a bad thing, but it can sometimes cause a problem. Today we’ll talk about why that happens.
Form a New Word by Adding a Suffix: Suffixation
To understand back-formation, let’s first think about another word-formation process, suffixation. Suffixation is common. Take the verb “syndicate.” The noun “syndication” was created from “syndicate” by adding the suffix “-ion.” So you’d think the noun “donation” was created by putting a suffix on the verb “donate,” right?
Form a New Word by Removing a Suffix: Back-Formation
Surprise! It wasn’t. The noun “donation” entered the language first, in the 15th century, and only later, in the 19th century, was the verb “donate” formed by removing the suffix.
How can you tell whether one word was derived from another by adding a suffix, or the process went in the opposite direction, via back-formation? Unless you check a dictionary, or you were alive to notice the newer word entering the language, you can’t. And it usually doesn’t matter, either. Both “syndicate” and “donate” are 100% acceptable, standard English words.
Examples of Back-Formation
Back-formation can happen with other suffixes, too. For example, the word “pea” (meaning the vegetable, I hasten to add), was created by back-formation from the word “pease,” spelled P-E-A-S-E. The word “pease” sounds plural, but it was actually a singular noun, kind of like “oatmeal” or “mush.” But “pease” sounded so much like a plural that it was interpreted as one, and people formed the singular word “pea” by stripping away what they perceived to be a plural suffix.
Another well-known example, relevant to many of my listeners, is “edit.” The noun “editor” entered the English language first, and about 100 years later, the “-or” suffix was removed to give us the verb “edit.”
Troublesome Back-formations: Commentate, Orientate, Conversate
So when does back-formation cause a problem? Looking at the verbs the callers asked about, they were back-formed (or should I say “back-formated”?) from the nouns “commentator,” “orientation,” and “conversation,” by removing the “-or” or “ion” suffixes. The trouble is that verbs corresponding to these nouns already exist; i.e. “comment,” “orient,” and “converse.”
When language devotees hear back-formed variants such as “commentate,” “orientate,” or “conversate,” they probably feel the way I do when someone else in the house buys and opens a new jar of mayonnaise without checking to see if there’s one already open in the refrigerator. They’ve wasted money and space in the fridge, and now we have two jars to deal with instead of one.
In the case of these verbs, there are now two verbs cluttering up the place where only one verb needs to be—and to make matters worse, these verbs have an extra syllable. The same objection applies to “administrate,” “informate,” “observate,” “imaginate,” and other back-formed verbs.
I was on that radio program again a few weeks later, and that time a caller told a story about hearing someone say “certificate” [pronounced “SERT-i-fi-KATE”]. “Certificate” is a clear back-formation from the noun “certification,” but like the other verbs we’ve been talking about, there’s an already-existing verb with two fewer syllables that means the same thing: “certify.”
Avoid Needless Back-formations
Our Quick and Dirty Tip for better writing is whenever you start to use a verb ending in “-ate” or “-icate,” make it a habit to check if there is a verb without that suffix and with the same meaning. If so, use the shorter verb. If you’re not sure, check a dictionary.
Some Odd Back-formations Have Special Uses
The key phrase is “with the same meaning.” Needless as some of these back-formations may have been when they were coined, some have gained legitimacy by developing meanings that are different from the earlier-existing verbs. “Commentate,” for example, doesn’t mean precisely the same thing as “comment.” It carries more of an idea of a continued, systematic commentary, for a political or sporting event, as it occurs (1).
“Informate” in the field of information technology has a specific meaning of extracting information from something (2). If you hear it, the speaker may have chosen the back-formed verb because it had a more precise and appropriate meaning.
Some Back-formations Are More Acceptable in Different Dialects
Also be aware that some back-formed verbs are variants from other dialects. Although “orientate” is often criticized in American English, in British English it is actually preferred over “orient (3).” “Conversate” not only is a word in African-American English, but also has a more specialized meaning than “converse”; it tends to have more connotations of small talk or flirtation. It’s also favored by rappers, as in this line I found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (4), in a rap about AIDS: “There's no debate, conversate with your mate / And don't wait until it's too late.”
Of course, just because a word is well-accepted in one dialect doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for use in something written for work or school. I should note that even on the Urban Dictionary website (5), “conversate” is ridiculed and condemned. As with all your writing, know what kind of language your audience is expecting, and choose your words accordingly.
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and it was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.