You know damn well it's a word
An exchange on Twitter:
@cwceditor: @guardianstyle Please tell me there's no such verb as "to incent."
@guardianstyle There's no such verb as "to incent".
All right, boys, you’ve had your fun, but we all know full well that there is too a verb incent. We’ve seen or heard it used, and we know perfectly well what it means. In fact, as a clear, compact word for “to give an incentive to/for,” it serves a purpose.
What we are actually talking about is not whether it’s a word, but whether we care for the people who use it. Evidently we don’t. Neither do I, actually, having enduring my portion of management-speak over the years.*
And that is as it should be. We learn to talk initially by imitating the language we hear. As we grow older, we refine our speech by further imitation, and when we engage in writing, we imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the examples we encounter. That’s how it’s done.
If you boil down prose style to a single statement, it is that we choose whom we want to sound like. If faddy vogue usages and jargon grate on your ear, don’t use them. If you find much management chatter to be duplicitous and manipulative double-speak or vacuous cheerleading, congratulations on your perspicacity. Shun it as much as you can while keeping your job.
The same holds true for your other choices. Does formal language make you feel pompous and awkward? Colloquial language not a good fit? In your writing you are expressing a voice, so far as the occasion and the audience will permit it, and your judgment will lead you to the language that fits your personality.
English is a big sloppy language that offers you choices among words that are standard and non-standard, words with old meanings and words with meanings just emerging, and words being twisted out of their old shapes. Choose among them as it suits your style and your purpose. When you find one that you don’t like, be honest and just say you don’t like it. Don’t hide behind the “it’s not a word” pretense.
*Some time back, in an effort to improve the annual performance reviews in the newsroom, managers were issued a little paperback wordbook of vocabulary for evaluations. That this pathetic resource was thought advisable for a newsroom full of writers and editors doesn’t speak well of the newsroom, or of the human resources people who thought it a good idea. I used it solely for laughs.