The shorter word is usually the better choice, but don't get carried away and start thinking that choosing the shorter word is a hard-and-fast rule.
Today, we’re going to talk about two cases in which English has two words that mean the same thing and whether one choice is better than the other. Preventative and preventive, and orient and orientate.
Preventive Versus Preventative
In my book The Grammar Devotional, I wrote that it is OK to use preventative, but I got this e-mail message from a reader named Karissa: “The word ‘preventative’ is one of my biggest pet peeves. It has always been my firm belief that ‘preventative’ is simply incorrect. So you can imagine my dismay when I read in The Grammar Devotional that ‘preventative’ is in fact an acceptable variation of ‘preventive.’ I then came across this from the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage . . . " and she goes on to quote a section of the book that essentially says preventative is horrible and you should never use it, and asks me to go into more detail because now she’s confused.
Often when there are two nearly identical words that mean the same thing, such as preventive and preventative, everyone presumes that one of them is wrong—usually the longer one. That kind of logic would suggest that preventative is a bad word.
I remember agonizing over this entry for The Grammar Devotional because my most trusted source, Garner's Modern American Usage, calls preventative unfortunate and unnecessary. (1) Yet, after checking the Oxford English Dictionary, I found it impossible to say that a word that has been used for more than 300 years is wrong. Further, even though it is clear Garner hates the word, even he admits that preventative is at his "Stage 4" of language, which he defines as "virtually universal, but opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).” Further, the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that preventative is not wrong, and the editors point out that preventative has been used by reputable writers such as George Washington and Daniel Defoe and is formed the same way as talkative and authoritative, yet nobody complains about those words. (2)
What Should You Do?
Preventative is a troublesome word, which is why I also included an entry about it in my book 101 Troublesome Words. It’s troublesome because some reference books say it’s fine and others say it’s bad. You can choose to use the sleeker word, preventive, and I encourage you to choose preventive so you don’t annoy people like Karissa, but you also shouldn’t chide people who prefer the longer word because it isn’t actually wrong; it’s just less popular.
Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.
― Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire
Wearing flannel next to the skin is the best cure for, and preventative of the Rheumatism I ever tried.
― George Washington, first president of the United States of America
Orient Versus Orientate
Now, let’s move on to orient and orientate. This is another case where we have two words that mean the same thing, but this time the answer is different.