Preventive vs. Preventative Care – The Final Battle

Max OOP is far from a grammar king. I can barely construct a sentence without completely missing words or having extra words that aren’t even needed. It was one of my barriers to entry to this questionable blogging career. I probably regularly get judged for it in my corporate emails, but at least it has never come up on an annual performance review. But my grammar deficiencies are not enough to hold me back from weighing in on this battle. Next to politics, apparently grammar is one thing that can really get people fired up. 

Preventive care or Preventative care? In my relatively short career, I have seen both of these words used in corporate presentations and reports to describe healthcare services aimed at screening or preventing a disease. Cholesterol or colonoscopy screenings at a certain age are great examples; we don’t expect that there is anything wrong, but we screen for it to be sure. These are usually the types of tests or services that can help protect us from getting sick. Most insurance companies are mandated to cover certain screening services. My insurance company happens to use preventive to describe these benefits. 

Well as it turns out, there is actually quite a debate on the correct word we should be using to describe these services. Even the New York Times has been known to use both versions not only in the same article but the same paragraph. Forbes used preventative just last week in this article.

So today, Max OOP is going to try and set the record straight. 

To add to the disclaimer above, I am not a healthcare provider or an English teacher. I am just an Average Joe Max from the other side of the train tracks that happens to come from the preventative camp. Or, as one of the commenters over at Grammarist put it:

“You must be blue collar. Congratulations on not paying for an education!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I will do my best to stay objective during this analysis and, ultimately, we will have to give Google the last word. After all, we want to make Google happy if we ever want this blog to reach the masses. So please, don’t threaten me or my family at the conclusion of this post.      

Looking To The Dictionary

I will start by saying the majority of the sources I reviewed consider both versions of the word to be a standard form of English used as a noun or adjective. Most reference material seems to only recommend the use of preventive without actually dismissing preventative.

According to Merriam-Webster, which has been around since 1828, there is technically no difference between the words. They are both adjectives that mean “used to stop something bad from happening”. Evidently, the debate dates back to the 1800s according to Webster’s online resource. The actual definition of preventive according to several different dictionary sources is:

Designed or serving to prevent or hinder the occurrence of a disease.

When I look up the definition of preventative, it actually links back directly to the preventive definition when you check most online resources. 

Grammar Girl over at AMA Style Insider signs off on using both but does take a confident stance favoring preventive without being too rigid. 

As adjectives, preventive and its derivative preventative are equal in meaning. JAMA and the Archives Journals prefer preventive. You may certainly choose to use the sleeker preventive, but don’t chide people who prefer the longer form.

AMA Style Insider

Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster does not take a stance on the correct word we should be using and advises me to use the word that speaks to my heart. There are also several resources that say respected and edited publications favor preventive where you will more commonly see preventative used in online resources with less rigorous editorial standards. Max Out of Pocket’s editorial standards are far from rigorous, so perhaps I have some latitude to use preventative? Preventative speaks to my heart and I would love to close out the argument here and declare preventative the winner. But in the end, Google is one of the few things that can trump Max OOP.

So we have a conundrum here; preventive and preventative are tied at the end of Round 1. 

Is Older Wiser?

For some, we would take the age of origination as the deciding factor. According to the Merriam-Webster online resource preventive is slightly older, showing up in English in the beginning of the 17th century.  So preventive gets the first punch in Round 2. However, considering preventative has been around for over 350 years, it is no spring chicken and has some legit usage and experience to back it up. Webster also mentions the two words co-existed for 200 years before this great debate even started.  

John Russell Bartlett, in his 1848 A Dictionary of Americanisms, sniffed that preventative was “A corruption sometimes met with for preventive both in England and America.” He was followed by Matthew Harrison, who in his 1861 The Rise, Progress, and Present Structure of the English Language stated that preventative was nothing more than preventive “written and spoken improperly.” This was followed by another hundred years of language guides claiming that one of these words was proper and one was not.

Merriam-Webster, ‘Preventive’ or ‘Preventative’? Why not both, just to be safe?, 2019

The Great Debate

At one point, there was an all-out war going on in the comment section of Grammarist on the correct use of preventive and preventative. In fact, Grammarist suggested way back in 2013 that they had to delete all the comments because they were just getting too ugly. They went on to say they will likely need to close the thread, and eventually did. Here are a few of my favorite comments that are still left on the thread:

  • When I hear “preventative”, I think “This moron is yet another of the horde of people trying to sound smarter than they actually are, and yet it’s backfiring because they’ve chosen a word that at best is a secondary usage and at worst should not even be a word.”
  • When I heard a DOCTOR use the word preventative, I about leapt out of my chair. I think it only makes a person sound like an idiot when they use the word preventative.
  • Only morons use “preventative”. It’s like “administrate” used for “administer”. Strictly moron usage.
  • Frequent usage of an incorrect word does NOT make it correct.
  • Lots of angry grammar police here in the comments sections. Relax people. We have bigger issues to worry about. Peace.
  • I’m a stick in the mud about my preference for “preventive”.  Mystandard pushback if someone asks me why is “People don’t preventate things from happening, so why use “preventative” when “preventive” works fine?”   
    • Response: One doesn’t “representate”, and yet we have “representative” stemming from “represent”.  I accept the emergence of “preventative” alongside “preventive” as perfectly valid. 
    • Response: nope…you don’t need preventate to be a word in order for preventative to be acceptable. No one argumentates but you can be argumentative (in fact, argumentive is not even a word). So that one counterexample basically destroys the substance of your argumentatification.
  • Preventive’ is always correct and ‘preventative’ is the next thing to ‘irregardless’.
    • Response: Don’t even get me started on “orientated”.
    • Response: Orientated is British English. But I assume you knew that, right?
      • Response: I don’t care where it comes from, it’s wrong.

After scouring the comment section of several resources, I would have to say Round 3 was too close to call, but preventive does have a lot of drunk obnoxious fans in the crowd. 

Google’s Verdict?

Google will decide everything here in Round 4. Since we have confirmed both words are technically correct, we are going to move to utilization as the deciding factor. 

When I type preventative into a google search, I get a whopping 40 million hits. The younger preventative has a nice start to Round 4. Google even has this fancy chart showing the exponential growth in the use of preventative since the 1950s. 

However, when I google preventive, I get an astronomical 677 million hits. It is simply used much more often. This would be the knockout punch in Round 4. Unfortunately, I have to declare preventive the winner here.  

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Preventive will be used on the Max Out of Pocket blog going forward. But technically, we have two words in the English language that mean the same thing. The majority of the sources I reviewed consider both versions of the word to be a standard form of English used as a noun or adjective. 

Max OOP will be wearing a rubber band on my wrist for the next 3 or so years as a preventive reminder that I should not be using preventative on the blog going forward. However, this is ultimately a strategic decision since we want to make Google happy here at Max Out of Pocket. My friends and family will likely continue to hear me tout preventative since I like to try and sound smarter than I really am.

What is your preference, preventive or preventative?

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