I’d Incentivize You To Watch Your Language

Some colleagues were in a snit over the use of the word “incentivize” — namely the approach of augmenting a noun to make it a verb. Following is my response, because I’d love to discuss this like a  spittle-chinned nerd with any of you who are willing:

I know it’s tempting to reject new words, but all words were — at some point– new.

To say I’m surprised to hear myself say that is an understatement, since a literary background and penchant for vintage snobbery gave me this extremist, anti-modernist view of language. In other words: until recently I was convinced we were all in the handbasket to linguistic hell. But I’ve been following a lot of very compelling arguments that not only favor a more sympathetic approach to how language is changing, but offer this: what are you going to do about it anyway?

Language has always been changing, and the masses (and those who write for them, help us all) have been perhaps the single most influential in that. Once upon a time, Chaucer was lambasted by the intelligentsia for using a “vulgar” hybrid of filthy street lingo, Latin, and French to create Middle English. Which, by today’s standards, even highly intelligent, well-read people would find inscrutable. (I’m still not ready to apply this populist approach to letting the grammar slaughter so rampant on the internet inform grammar at large — we all have our limits.)

But to verb-ize a noun is hardly a new thing, nor one limited to business-speak. Ever “map” out a plan? That was once strictly a noun. “Friend” someone on Facebook? Try wrenching that from modern usage.

I think the real problem with “incentivize” is its ugliness, its lack of poetry, of imagery. If you want to elicit a response from your reader, you’ll need words with verve and gusto, with sound and color. I’d look past the laziness responsible for “incentivize” — that laziness is endemic to human speech, anyway (in a more forgiving mood, I call it “convenience”). Instead, I’d ask why we are so afraid of a human, emotional response in our corporate vernacular.

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