Is Conversate a Word?

How do oddities such as "conversate" arise? Through back-formations, which are more common than you may realize.

Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
English has lots of ways to form new words. Does 'conversate' qualify?

Troublesome Back-formations: Commentate, Orientate, Conversate 

So when does back-formation cause a problem? Looking at the verbs the callers asked about, they were back-formed (or should I say “back-formated”?) from the nouns “commentator,” “orientation,” and “conversation,” by removing the “-or” or “ion” suffixes. The trouble is that verbs corresponding to these nouns already exist: “comment,” “orient,” and “converse.”

When language devotees hear back-formed variants such as “commentate,” “orientate,” or “conversate,” they probably feel the way I do when someone else in the house buys and opens a new jar of mayonnaise without checking to see if there’s one already open in the refrigerator. They’ve wasted money and space in the fridge, and now we have two jars to deal with instead of one.

In the case of these verbs, there are now two verbs cluttering up the place where only one verb needs to be—and to make matters worse, these verbs have an extra syllable. The same objection applies to “administrate,” “informate,” “observate,” “imaginate,” and other back-formed verbs.

I was on that radio program again a few weeks later, and that time a caller told a story about hearing someone say “certificate” [pronounced “SERT-i-fi-KATE”]. “Certificate” is a clear back-formation from the noun “certification,” but like the other verbs we’ve been talking about, there’s an already-existing verb with two fewer syllables that means the same thing: “certify.”

Avoid Needless Back-formations

Our Quick and Dirty Tip for better writing is whenever you start to use a verb ending in “-ate” or “-icate,” make it a habit to check if there is a verb without that suffix and with the same meaning. If so, use the shorter verb. If you’re not sure, check a dictionary.

Some Odd Back-formations Have Special Uses

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The key phrase is “with the same meaning.” Needless as some of these back-formations may have been when they were coined, some have gained legitimacy by developing meanings that are different from the earlier-existing verbs. “Commentate,” for example, doesn’t mean precisely the same thing as “comment.” It carries more of an idea of a continued, systematic commentary, for a political or sporting event, as it occurs (1).

“Informate” in the field of information technology has a specific meaning of extracting information from something (2). If you hear it, the speaker may have chosen the back-formed verb because it had a more precise and appropriate meaning.


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