Friday, March 4, 2011

ALOTT5MA FRIDAY GRAMMAR RODEO SPECIAL BONUS DOUBLE FEATURE:  Because today is National Grammar Day, I would like to provide incentives for everyone to celebrate it by including a second post on the topic today in addition to Isaac's inquiry. Perhaps one way is to note that "to provide incentives" sure seems to take up an awful lot of words, and, gosh, wouldn't it be nice to reduce it to one word -- hey, how about incent or incentivize?

Random House will tell you that both are real words,  On the former:
The earliest example I could find is in a 1981 edition of Chemical Week: "... we have to get the American industrial engine running again...If you set realistic performance targets with enough stretch in them, then you're trying to incent the participants on things that are within their control." And here's a very recent example from The Charleston Gazette: "The way these business owners and managers see it, incentive compensation programs are likely to be used more and more...Unemployment is at all-time lows....Companies have to find ways to incent their employees in a highly competitive environment."

Though incent has been widely used over the past twenty years, every so often I see evidence that people are hearing or seeing it for the first time. Our citation files hold this example from a 1997 article in The Los Angeles Times: "State Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer's clunky new welfare reform verb-'to incent', meaning to motivate-is sure to incense grammarians." As for its acceptability,incent isn't even mentioned by grammarians who criticize other back formations such as enthuse and burgle. But because it's in the same category as these words,incent would probably be frowned upon as bureaucratic jargon.
However, Roy Jacobsen calls both "nasty neologisms" that "deserve to be throttled, wrapped up in black plastic, and dropped into the deepest crevices of the Marianas Trench," and then tells us what he really thinks:
These so-called words are common among businesspeople, many of whom have an almost obsessive compulsion to sound smart by showing off their big vocabulary. At some point in the 70s, one such businessperson was looking for an impressive-sounding way to say encourage. They looked at the word incentive and decided that its root must be incent. They were wrong. There is (or was, at any rate) no such word as incent.

Incentivize is a victim of our tendency to think that we can stick the suffix -ize (that’s -ise for those of you in the United Kingdom) on the end of any word to create a verb. Yes, that works in many cases—authorize, legalize, and deputize, for example. But in most cases—especially when you look at some of the examples coming from business jargon—it’s ugly and unnecessary.
And Otto Mezzo of Lexicide would rather you avoid both.
1) Encourage, motivate, drive, urge, lead and spur are still more universal, positive and readable.

2) The first time I heard incent, I mistook it for incense and wondered why we wanted to enrage our customers. This could happen to you.

3) To incent or incentivize, you must offer an incentive. If you don’t have one, use another damn word. If your “incentive” is the spectre of firing or other penalty, you should try the word threaten or browbeat.
So, what to do, and yes it's our standard battle lines: live in the now amid an evolving language, or be sensitive to the ears of those who find these terms wretched?

Poll results: 56% say neither is a real word; 39% approve of "incentivize" and 7% approve of "incent."  (4% liked both.)


  1. I like "incentivize," with the caveat that I agree with Mezzo #3. But I live incide the Beltway.

  2. Anonymous9:50 AM

    I have no problem with new words that allow communicators to express ideas that are not captured adequately by existing words.  "Incentivize" has such potential, capturing both the act by the "incentivize-er" and the effect upon the "incentiviz-ee."  That being said, it is often used as a straight replacement for "motivate" particularly where there is no incentive (as made clear in Mezzo 3), making its existence largely unnecessary. 

  3. isaac_spaceman10:35 AM

    I hate these words, "incent" more than "incentivize."  Worse yet: "disincent."  And yet I recognize that "incentive" has an almost talismanic importance in certain fields, and the dastardly neologisms are more specific than and not exactly the same as the supposed synonyms ("motivate," "encourage," "foster").  It's really a matter of personal preference whether one uses the clunky neologisms or the clunky "create an incentive" formulation, which frequently leads to convoluted sentences.  Damned if you do, damned if you don't. 

  4. Heather K11:01 AM

    Incent is not ok.  Their is no reason to use it ever, and to my mind it brands the user as an asshat.

    I don't like incentivize, but I do agree with isaac above that I see why it exists.  Also my personal dislike of incentivize is directly related to my boss' blind affection for it (I am an executive assistant) and the fact that whenever he uses it to try to motivate me towards a goal he betrays his total cluelessness when it comes to things that would motivate me.  Then it starts to incite FURIOUS RAGE, particularly on weeks when I spent over 26 hours at the office during a 48 period.  LIKE THIS ONE.  HULK SMASH!!!

  5. I'm with Ted -- I like and use incentivize.

  6. Adam C.12:19 PM

    First of all, thanks to Adam for picking up on a jesting comment of mine as (I think) the seed of this post.  Second, I grew up using and hearing incentivize well before incent came into heavy use, and the former is always my preference between the two (largely for the reasons Heather K so eloquently and harriedly expounds upon).  Third, I think the larger lesson here is Mezzo #3, which we'd all do well to encourage ourselves, and browbeat others, to absorb.

  7. Hate them both. I can read them without wincing, but hearing either aloud spins my neck like antelope in the plains.

    Also, I'm bothered whenever someone uses a tangible item as an incentive- in my mind, that is a reward or a prize. Anyone else of the belief that an incentive should be ethereal, like the humiliation of others or the favor of the king?

  8. Meghan8:56 PM

    Not a fan of either incent or incentivize, though if death is not an option, I'll go with the latter.

    I love liaise though. Love.

  9. I would not be opposed to exploring "verbal back formations that we like."  Burgle! Pettifog!

  10. <span>So, what to do, and yes it's our standard battle lines: live in the now amid an evolving language, or be sensitive to the ears of those who find these terms wretched?</span>

    Would I rather be on the side of Shakespeare... or Lynne Truss?  

  11. Uncle Spike7:51 PM

    "Incent"? Repugnant. "Incentivize"? Only slightly less so. But both are awful - and users should be subjected to fifty lashes with a prickly pear.

    I'm especially allergic to corporate-speak. I just about collapsed, anoxic from anaphylaxis, from hearing "we need to leverage these deliverables" for the first time. So take what I say with a grain of salt.

    If we can't use "motivate," "inspire," or "empower," what good are those words? They're obviously still in everyday use and not becoming obscure. And although "incentive" is a common word, so is "goal." We don't use "goalate" or "goalicize," so why use "incent" or "incentivize?" Let's stick with what works. (I also place the gawdawful neologism "stick-to-it-ive-ness" and its proper synonyms "dedication" and "determination," in the same camp.)