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Is Conversate a Word?

How do oddities such as "conversate" arise? Back formations are more common than you may realize. 

Neal Whitman has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 14, 2011
Episode #271

Page 3 of 3

Some Back-formations Are More Acceptable in Different Dialects

Also be aware that some back-formed verbs are variants from other dialects. Although “orientate” is often criticized in American English, in British English it is actually preferred over “orient (3).” “Conversate” not only is a word in African-American English, but also has a more specialized meaning than “converse”; it tends to have more connotations of small talk or flirtation. It’s also favored by rappers, as in this line I found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (4), in a rap about AIDS: “There's no debate, conversate with your mate / And don't wait until it's too late.”

Of course, just because a word is well-accepted in one dialect doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for use in something written for work or school. I should note that even on the Urban Dictionary website (5), “conversate” is ridiculed and condemned. As with all your writing, know what kind of language your audience is expecting, and choose your words accordingly.

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and it was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Added 2/8/2013: Another backformation is "statistic." Garner's Modern American Usage says "statistic" is a backformation from "statistics."

References

  1. “Commentate.” Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. Arnold Zwicky. Jan. 23, 2010. “Informate.” Post on Arnold Zwicky’s Blog, http://arnoldzwicky.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/informate/, accessed Feb. 24, 2011.
  3. “Orientate.” Oxford English Dictionary.
  4. Mark Davies. Corpus of Contemporary American English. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/, accessed Feb. 24, 2011.
  5. “Conversate.” Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=conversate, accessed Feb. 26, 2011. 

 

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