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Rosie Right

Our language and how it works.


Putting on Airs

A reader has called to complain about our use of the word preventative instead of the simpler preventive. I feel the same disapproval because the longer word seems to me an attempt to be complicated and intellectual.

Most dictionaries, including the American Heritage, that have an entry for preventative describe it as "a variant of preventive." Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives examples of preventative's use beginning in 1655, includes the sentence: "Avoidance of the present word and the use in its place of preventive n. and preventive adj. is recommended by some usage guides."

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, however, is true to form and more permissive. The editors tell us:

"The critics have panned preventative for over a century, preferring its shorter synonym preventive in spite of the fact that both words have been around for over 300 years and both have had regular use by reputable writers." Two of the writers listed are Daniel Defoe and George Washington.

Webster's may be correct, but to me, the chief reason to be very, very careful about the use of preventative is that it tends to encourage the reader to stop and begin to wonder about the use of the word, losing the meaning of the article one is reading.

Quiz:What is a francophone author and why should he or she be looked down on?

Answer: Webster's New World College Dictionary describes a francophone as a speaker of French. Francophone authors, according to an article by Alan Riding in the March 30 New York Times, are writers who are not French but who write in French. They are often Caribbean or African.

The fierce defenders of the French language — especially those who are threatened and insulted by the spread of English — have considered francophone writers inferior. When, this year, five of the top seven French book prizes went to francophones, the snobby purists were horrified. What to do?

Perhaps let them into the club? There is now a movement to give these writers the hallowed title of "French writers," and the problem has even been discussed in the French presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, English keeps pushing ahead.

Let Rosie hear from you by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com), by telephone (358-0825, ext. 322) or by regular mail (c/o Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230).

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