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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:19 AM | | Comments (10)


Don't think I have heard it used, actually, so perhaps what the Grauniad meant was that there is no such verb in Standard BrE. You have to remember they speak a different language over here. Anyway, here's Johnson, who also seems to find it a little weird:

I love this line, Mr. McIntyre: "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."

May I give what I consider a charming example of this?

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

Riley's poem goes on with more wonderful words chosen to suit his style and purpose. What a great language we've got.


P.S. Yes, I closed the message with "we've got" when "we have" would suffice as well syntactically. It's that choice thing to suit style and purpose that Mr. McIntyre mentioned.

Like most, I use neolisms selectively. I like terms like "grow a business," for example. But even though I already know the battle is a "fail," I won't use others. And you can't "incent" me to do so.

Frankly, I find "motivate" serves just fine without distracting the reader from the original point of the text with the question "is that a word?"

I suspect that motivate produced its own share of harrumphs at its origin in the 1880s.

Well, then, how about "encourage"?

As for our big sloppy language, I once had the privilege of hearing Jorge Luis Borges speak at Johns Hopkins many years ago, and if memory serves, he praised the English language as being superior to the romance languages because of the richness of the vocabulary.

I'd like to hear some more examples from the evaluation vocabulary book. Then again, maybe I wouldn't...

When managers intend to type "incent," I hope they accidentally type "incant," as in "to utter an incantation." It would add drama and would probably subtract absurdity: "We want to incant you to learn the difference between it's and its."

One good thing about "incent" is that it may help some poor soul resist succumbing to use of "incentivize."


This is the first I've heard of "to incent" not being a word. I study economics and psychology, and the term is used quite often. It means something very specific that cannot be captured by encourage (which connotes a third party intentional suggestion) or motivate (which connotes an internal impetus). Incentivize is generally used to speak about where the incentives point a person. For example, having a low co-pay on medical tests incentivizes patients to get many tests when they are sick, even if they are not motivated or encouraged to.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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