I can’t believe I “-tate” the whole thing

Today’s topic addresses the oldest “by request” post in the queue. It concerns commentate and orientate, two words that to some are the verbal equivalent of fingernails dragged across a chalkboard. I don’t entirely feel your pain — but I understand it.

The reason it’s taken awhile to get to this one is because it’s one of those topics that runs the risk of going on for many pages. As any good writer knows, it’s often far more difficult to keep something brief than to just go on and on (…and on…).

Words like commentate and orientate (along with disorientate, spectate, conversate, presentate, administrate, and others) cause irritation not only because they seem so ugly – in fact, they are – but also because many people feel words of this type are already perfectly fine before being padded out with an extra syllable, or modified to end with an unnecessary “-ate.”

That’s true in many of these cases: they’re inelegant, unnecessary, and frequently read as ignorant. My advice is, when you have a choice, to avoid them. But as with almost every other issue of English usage, the whole story isn’t that simple.

Many of these words actually have correct – or at least acceptable – uses. Let’s take orientate. When most people use it, they really mean to orient, or to get oriented. This means to get your sense of direction, and the Latin “east” origin is the same as the noun, supposedly because the easiest way to do that was to know where the sun rose (in the east). That’s easy to believe.

Would you also believe that both words are relatively modern, with first use of orient dating only to 1728 and orientate not very far behind in 1848? (Both according to OED, which gives the words nearly identical definitions.) Orientate, as the newer term, is what’s known as a backformation, a word formed by removing the suffix from a longer word in the belief that this yields the original. In this case, there was orient, and the noun form orientation, and some speakers (and writers) mistakenly believed orientate to be the original verb form. It stuck…and uptight usage sticklers have been beating their breasts ever since.

Commentate has a similar origin, with both comment (1599) and commentate (1794) having been around for quite some time. Commentate is a backformation from commentator (one who comments); commenter(-or) predates commentator, but at some point, likely in the mid 1700s, commentator began to take the lead and hasn’t looked back.

Both of these words – commentate and orientate – can be found in both American and British English, but Americans seem to get more consistently upset over the -tate forms. Which isn’t to say that all Brits are happy with them. They’re not. But orientate and commentate are more frequent, and more frequently accepted, in the UK.

Backformation is not a new or uncommon phenomenon. Although the name for the process was first coined around 1888 by the first editor of the OED itself, it’s deeply entrenched. Words created in this way are sometimes accepted without much fuss. They’re frequently verbs backformed from nouns: babysit from babysitter, fluoresce from fluorescent, lase from laser, panhandle from panhandler, and so on.

There are many other words that probably are (or are alleged to be) backformations, with differing levels of support (and accepted use): narrate from narrator, gamble from gambler, intuit from intuition, emote from emotion, and so on.

In recent decades, commentate seems to have almost achieved respectability in American English, especially in two contexts: political commentators and any kind of sports usage. The sports usage is so common that sometimes it almost seems to be part of a peculiar English dialect (ESPN-ese?). It’s also not forbidden in contemporary fiction: I’m currently reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and the narrator – Death – is fond of using commentate. I admit that the word grates, but I actually find it easy to tolerate when used in a sports context, as Zusak’s Death usually does (at least in the portion I’ve read so far).

Of course, there’s a big difference between tolerating a usage and encouraging it. Some backformations are hard to swallow, and if they haven’t been commonly accepted, it’s probably a good idea to skunk them. Different audiences will be more or less annoyed by their use.

For example, spectate, while not in the original reader request, might be the backformation that bothers me the most. Here’s an example of multiple egregious uses of spectate and spectating from the Event Etiquette Guide of the New England Nordic Ski Association. This is (appropriately) from the section for spectators:

2) Head out to the course to spectate before the race begins.
3) Find a location for spectating and remove your skis while spectating.
4) Use classic skis when you are spectating on a classic race course.

There’s also a photo, with this caption:

On-course spectating at one of our prettier courses — Bretton Woods Marathon

(all quotes New England Nordic News, Winter 2011-12, Vol 17, No. 2, pg 8.)

This use of the backformation is cringe-worthy. It’s not only that it sounds pretentious – wouldn’t view, watch, or observe work as well or better here? It’s also that it sounds so ugly. In fact, the jarring use of spectate obscures the fact that some of this language comes close to failing at what it’s trying to say. “Head out to the course to spectate before the race begins”? That’s just poorly written. What they really mean to say is probably along the lines of “Find a place to watch before the event begins.” If they’re insistent on cramming some form of “spectate” in there, go instead with “Get to the spectators’ position before the race begins.” It’s inelegant, but less ugly than what was used.

So, there you have about 1000 words on commentate, orientate, spectate, and backformation in general. I hope they give you a little useful advice and some helpful background on this interesting and ongoing phenomenon.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to I can’t believe I “-tate” the whole thing

  1. Pingback: Inevitable, Inept, and the Cranberry Morpheme | thebettereditor

  2. Pingback: Exfiltrate has infiltrated the language (If only it would exfiltrate itself) | thebettereditor

  3. Eena says:

    OMG thank you for this post!!!! I grew up with English professors as parents and proper grammar was instilled in us even before chores! I particularly hate it when people use these words! Waaahhhh!!! hahaha

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