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Wrestling with grammar: Select the best form

Editor’s note: This column has been changed to reflect that a sentence in the sixth paragraph should have read: “Writing in the active voice can help with structure.”


By Bill Ward

Think about this for a minute. Which is correct, preventive or preventative?

Curious readers have asked why I am a technical writer, as opposed to being a plain, ordinary writer. But I am a plain, ordinary writer. Any good writing demands simplicity. This is especially important in business and technical environments where easy information unloading is essential. In “true” technical writing, you do a project analysis, determining the product’s purpose. You describe how it functions, how to operate it, and how to fix it if it breaks, in the simplest possible form. I have just allowed some of my technical writing practices to carry over into other writing.

Several years ago, Microsoft had a version of Word—it might have been in Office 98—that allowed the user to click on a point, and a drop-down menu listed four or five writing styles. Among those listed was technical writing, fiction, short story, and a couple of others that I can’t remember.

I spent some time playing with those selective writing styles, and guess what? There was little, if any, difference between them. The words in my text were not magically changed and shifted around. Sometimes, as I recall, a suggestion for a different word might pop up, but nothing that screamed, “change me, change me.”

In some of the older software versions, you also could pull down a menu that not only would provide a word count, it would show you things like the average number of characters in words, sentences and the entire document. Most important, the software would provide the grade level you were writing at using several different methods. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to use as much simplicity as possible, only to find that you are writing on a 12- to 16-year-grade level, which is high by most standards.  And little can be more frustrating, aka difficult, than to try and reduce that down to a second- or fourth-grade level. That truly taxes your editing and writing skills.

So remember, when you are writing, use the kiss method, and I’m not talking about the rock group. If a two-syllable word will serve the same purpose as a three-syllable word, use the shorter word. Writing in the active voice can help with structure. A good example of pared-down writing can be found in the late Shelby Foote’s works, such as his book “Shiloh.” I consider him as having been the best researcher and writer about the Civil War of my generation. He didn’t waste words or paper space. Another author whose style was similar was Ernest Hemingway.

Now, back to preventive or preventative. Each means the same and each is correct.

However, I would prefer preventive, because it’s slightly shorter. And here’s something else to consider. From early 2013, preventive is about three times as common as preventative in general web searches. Preventive has been far more common in published books for the last two centuries at least. And the prevalence of the shorter form is seen throughout the English-speaking world. But, the longer form is especially common outside North America. In British news stories from 2012, for example, the ratio of preventive to preventative was very nearly 1:1, while it was almost 10:1 in U.S. news stories from the same period.

It’s important that you use either one form or the other, but not both. Do not use preventive and preventative in the same piece of work.

A reporter wrote recently in the Salisbury Post:  “Marc Anderson stood amongst protestors in Charlotte’s Marshall Park Wednesday and later feet away from what he called agitators, who freely looted downtown businesses.” Among and amongst have the same meaning. But, amongst is classed among the many relics of the English language. Its origin is Old English, around 1000 AD. Use among if you are surrounded by people or things. Use between if there are only two.

The disease spread quickly among the members of the community.

The ball was hidden among the leaves.

Several hecklers were scattered among the crowd.

Finally, did you know that the ampersand (&) was at one time the 27th letter of the English alphabet? It means “and.” However, do not use it as a substitute for the word and in general writing. It’s OK to use it as part of a company’s name, such as Lord & Taylor.

Bill Ward is an MIT-trained technical writer-editor who has written a 400-page manuscript on the subject. He has taught technical writing and editing for adult professionals at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com .



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