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Random Observations

With a cool head and sound reasoning, a student in my OpStrat class laid out his solution to last Wednesday’s case: “you have to incent the management to operate each plant as an independent profit center”.

Someone else countered with: “it doesn’t matter who you incentivize, you can’t do the impossible”. Touch‚, I thought, and typed the response into my computer.

And then Microsoft Word drew that squiggly little red line beneath the word “incentivize”. Silly me to get it wrong; I immediately changed it to “incent”. But now there was a red line under “incent”. What?

Thus began my investigation into a silent battle that has taken place in Aldrich and Hawes classrooms for years. Which is correct: “incent” or “incentivize”?

I think incentivize just sounds wrong. My grammar teacher Mrs. MP always told me to avoid the -ize construction – as it is considered a rough and non-creative means of turning nouns into verbs: computer becomes computerize, priority becomes prioritize, standard becomes standardize, etc. It’s very easy to abuse it, and I still wince at even legitimate and accepted uses of the suffix (Merriam-Webster notes that Thomas Nashe, who invented the -ize construction in 1591, often received complaints from friends and grammarians about his new words).

Enter incent. Clean. Short. Punchy. Laid back. Incent is the perfect solution for the internet generation. First used approximately 10 years after “incentivize”, “incent” was probably coined by someone who had a grammar teacher like Mrs. MP. The proper term for this sort of construction is a “back-formation”. Sculpt derived from sculpture is a wonderful example of a back-formation. So is burgle. If we measure purely based on sound, incent is the clear winner.

I researched this question with the supposed authorities on these matters: dictionaries. My personal favorite, Merriam-Webster’s 10th Collegiate, votes for incentivize, which M-W thinks was first used in 1970. Incent doesn’t even show up – an utterly embarrassing non-word. This trend continued with other dictionaries of American English; I could not find a single one that listed incent, yet incentivize managed to sneak into them all.

Even the legitimacy of incentivize has been called into question. I mentioned this story to my British friend Jules, who came back with his usual informed and brilliant logic. “It’s not a word; it’s not in the OED”.

OED – the Oxford English Dictionary – is widely regarded as THE rule-maker for the English language. What they say goes. And Jules is right – take out your copy of the OED right now and you’ll see that neither incent nor incentivize are mentioned.

Grammarians must be pleased. A survey of usage experts showed that an astonishing 94% rejected the use of “incentivize”; and fully 96% said no to “incent” (so much for the internet generation). So perhaps we have to go back to the drawing board.

Or perhaps not. On September 11th of this year, OED shocked purists when it announced that incentivize, incentivise, and incent will all be included in future versions of the stately old book (the online edition listed them immediately). OED even found someone who used the word “incentivize” in 1968 – two years earlier than Merriam-Webster’s citation (to grammarians, this is like finding the earliest fossil of Homo Erectus – big news). In another blow to Yankees, OED had a special notation under incent: “originally and chiefly North American.” Yes, the Yankees are to blame for the inclusion of this terrible backward-formation-jargon into our dictionary. In spite of its widely-embracing proclamation, OED appears to have a grudging preference for incentivize (perhaps it’s simply because Brits can write incentivise).

The bottom line is that both words are here to stay. I’m actually quite proud of MBAs and our consulting brethren, who are presumably responsible for creating the terms. I’ve been reminded that our language is constantly developing, and that, with enough daring, we can be responsible for changing the way people speak forever.

But with so much attention on their appropriate usage, I’ll personally avoid incent and incentivize altogether. Studies have shown that people’s estimates of your intelligence and status are highly correlated with the vocabulary you employ; if they believe you’ve misspoken, you can go from genius to chump in a flash. Besides, the world seemed to get along just fine using motivate for 110 years – and in a pinch, I can still use “give an incentive” – one extra syllable, but it will definitely keep Mrs. MP happy.

October 6, 2003
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