Words at Work by Kathy McIntosh: Have you endorsed any word clipping or back-formations?

KATHY McINTOSH, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.September 4, 2013 

Kathy McIntosh

As they often do, my readers have presented me with several recent learning opportunities. Maria Murphy, who worked in banking, asked me to remind readers that endorse means to sign on the back. Thus we need not say, “endorse the back of this check,” merely “endorse it.”

Choosing the correct usage in that case saves words, and since I’m a fan of conciseness, I endorse Maria’s reminder. Endorse also means to sanction or give approval or support.

I also learned two terms for the reduction of words: clipping and back-formations.

Clipping is the truncation or reduction of polysyllabic words into shorter forms. A common example is ad, shortened from advertisement. Clipping can be divided into back clipping, in which the beginning is retained; fore clipping, which cuts off the front of a word; and mid or middle clipping. There is also compound or complex clipping, in which one word is retained as a whole and another clipped word is affixed to it. Examples:

Back clipping:

• Cable (from cablegram)

• Doc (doctor)

• Exam (examination)

• Gas (gasoline)

• Limo (limousine)

• Memo (memorandum)

Fore clipping:

• Chute (parachute)

• Roach (cockroach)

• Gator (alligator)

• Phone (telephone)

Middle clipping:

• Flu (influenza)

• Fridge (refrigerator)

Complex (or compound) clipping:

• Op art (from optical art)

• Linocut (from linoleum cut)

Another linguistic lesson came when I heard a radio interviewee state that we need to find a way to “incentivize” people to save money. I thought the correct word would be incent, but a little research told me that incent is a recent back-formation, one that has not been generally accepted in formal usage.

Back-formations are a kind of clipping. However, most clippings are the same part of speech (generally nouns) as the longer word. Many back-formations create a verb from a noun. An examples is secrete, from secretion. Others are organize, automate, donate, curate. Back-formations often begin life under a shadow but gain acceptance. Mark Nichol, whose Daily Writing Tips (www.dailywritingtips.com) I admire, suggests caution with newer back-formations, such as incent, enthuse and spectate.

Nichols and others suggested that often the use of newer clipped words is accepted in informal writing but not in formal writing. I would classify emails and internal memos as informal, business proposals as formal. Ads and other marketing materials? For these I would suggest you consider your target audience. Older readers will be more likely to balk at informal usage and newer words.

When in doubt, I would err on the side of formal usage. You won’t risk offending anyone, even if some may think you went to the dull side.



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