Putting Out the Patrol for Made-Up Words



Estimates of English’s total word count vary, but linguists agree the number ranks near the top of the world’s vocabularies. A May GrammarBook newsletter article cited English as having as many as 300,000 distinctly usable words.

With so many residents in a vernacular, impostors posing as real words are bound to slip in. They start as mistakes but last long enough to wiggle into pockets of speech. Before long, they spread out, gaining confidence and popularity until they set their sights on the real prize: placement in a dictionary.

While casual conversation provides the most refuge for these con artists, their common usage still often lets them cross into composition’s more-managed domain.

Here are but a few made-up words we and our readers have singled out as guilty from the line-up of suspects:

Imposter: administrate (v)
Real Word: administer
Imposter: participator (n)
Real Word: participant
Imposter: commentate (v)
Real Word: comment
Imposter: preventative (adj)
Real Word: preventive
Imposter: orientate (v)
Real Word: orient
Imposter: supposably (adj, adv)
Real Word: supposedly
Imposter: conversate (v)
Real Word: converse
Imposter: undoutably (adj, adv)
Real Word: undoubtedly
Imposter: irregardless (adj, adv)
Real Word: regardless
Imposter: vice-a-versa (adv)
Real Word: vice versa
Imposter: exploitive (adj)
Real Word: exploitative
Imposter: whole nother (adj)
Real Words: another, whole other
Imposter: firstly (secondly, thirdly, etc.) (adv)
Real Word: first (second, third, etc.)
Imposter: incentivize (v)
Real Words: encourage, motivate, reward

A few of these invaders, such as irregardless and preventative, have already cleared the fence, crossed their covert tunnels, and arrived safely in dictionaries. That alone does not validate them, nor does it mean we should permit them into our writing.

You also probably noted several made-up words in the list include the suffix -ate. This is a common ploy some words will use to create more versions of themselves.

The suffix -ize operates much the same way. In addition to incentivize, keep an eye on words such as actualize, collectivize, intellectualize, and normalize. Some words, such as finalize, prioritize, memorize, and ostracize, need their three-letter caboose to deliver their meaning, but most -ize words are pitching tents where houses are built.

Made-up words present another call for us to lead the way in upholding concise, grammatical writing. By remaining vigilant, we can help halt the advance of the pretenders.

Posted on Tuesday, August 1, 2017, at 2:15 pm

7 Comments on Putting Out the Patrol for Made-Up Words

7 responses to “Putting Out the Patrol for Made-Up Words”

  1. Kathy Coletta says:

    I thought impostor was an “or” word.

  2. Anne Murphy says:

    Lovely column. (Not a sentence, I know.)
    How about incorrectly used words that are painfully becoming “accepted.” I cringe every time someone uses disinterested for uninterested. I have given up on fortuitous being used for “fortunate” (although I still cringe) but I really want to hold the line on disinterested.

    • We have similar concerns regarding these words. Please see our “Confusing Words and Homonyms” tab for our entries Disinterested, Uninterested and Fortuitous, Fortunate. We also issued previous e-newsletters with additional discussion from the perspective of us “language purists.” Please see Don’t Dis Disinterested and Words in Flux.

      We also hauled out our dictionaries and found the following:
      The American Heritage Dictionary has the following to say about these words:
      The traditional meaning of fortuitous is “happening by chance, accidental.” Perhaps because many chance events are favorable or because of the similarity of fortuitous to fortunate and felicitous, fortuitous has acquired the meaning “characterized by good fortune, lucky.” (Note that the word fortunate underwent a similar shift in meaning centuries ago.) In our 2005 survey, a solid majority of the Usage Panel accepted the use of the word to mean “lucky.” Some 68 percent accepted the sentence The photographer felt that it was very fortuitous that she was in place to take the winning photo, where the adverb very rules out the possibility that the word might mean “accidental.” A similar percentage (67) accepted the sentence The meeting proved fortuitous: I came away with a much better idea of my role, where the verb prove makes the meaning “accidental” an unlikely fit. This two-thirds majority stands in stark contrast to the 85 percent that rejected this same sentence in 1967. Nonetheless, writers should take care to avoid creating contexts in which the meaning of the word is ambiguous.

      In traditional usage, disinterested can only mean “having no stake in an outcome,” as in Since the judge stands to profit from the sale of the company, she cannot be considered a disinterested party in the dispute. This usage was acceptable to 98 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2013 survey. But despite critical disapproval, disinterested has come to be widely used to mean “uninterested” or “having lost interest,” as in Since she discovered skiing, she’s become disinterested in ice skating. The “not interested” meaning is actually the oldest sense of the word, going back to the 1600s. Despite its pedigree, this usage began to be considered an error in the 1900s. In five surveys spanning almost fifty years, the Usage Panel has consistently disapproved of sentences that use disinterested to mean “uninterested.” In our 2013 survey, for example, 86 percent of the Usage Panel found the sentence It is difficult to imagine an approach better designed to prevent disinterested students from developing any intellectual maturity to be unacceptable. This figure is essentially unchanged from the 88 percent of the Panel that disapproved of the same sentence in 2001.

  3. Janet Walker says:

    I love you, Jane Straus-Grammar Book people! In a society that has become stagnant with illiteracy, you all are a refreshing stream of pure water. I receive your newsletters with appreciation and great relief, knowing that there are still people in the world who love the English language and rules of grammar–and will fight to defeat imposters such as the highly annoying “conversate.” (I love your metaphorical description of made-up words!)

  4. CHERIE JOHNSON says:

    We are in a dispute in our office, as to whether an apostrophe belongs in this job title:
    “Veterans Career Coordinator”
    I say you do NOT use an apostrophe, because the person is a “Career Coordinator” working for “veterans,” he/she is not the Career Coordinator belonging (possessive) to the veterans.
    Another party in our organization goes by “Director of Veteran’s Affairs,” which I also believe is incorrect.
    Based on an individual’s opinion in our office, she believes it should be “Veterans’ Career Coordinator,” based on the rule of “the room of the girls = the girls’ room” and “the boat of the sailors – the sailors’ boat.” Based on this rule, I still disagree. Neither the Career Coordinator nor the Director of Veterans Affairs are possessive.
    PLEASE tell me if I am wrong, so I can quit letting this drive me crazy!!! Haha.
    THANK YOU!!

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