Question: “What are your thoughts about use of the (nonexistent) word ‘preventional’ on page 1 of Current in Carmel last week? It’s not in Webster’s app, at least not for iPhone.” (Becky Rainsberger, Carmel)
Answer: Well Becky, to be honest I hadn’t had any thoughts about “preventional” prior to your question. Obviously, the word we’d expect there is “preventative,” or even “preventive.” I did find an entry for “preventional” in a 1913 edition of a dictionary … but since I found no others, we’ll just call it non-standard at best.
Since I’m prone to tangents, your question got me interested in the reasoning behind why certain words receive certain suffixes as they transform from verbs to nouns or nouns to adjectives/adverbs. After all, while “prevention” gains an “-ative” or “-ive,” “convention” becomes “conventional,” while “attention” follows the former pattern and becomes “attentive.” It’s really more a question of etymology than grammar, but it’s my column, so you’re following me down the rabbit hole.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a consistent rule for selecting a suffix. Instead, I dug into the meanings of each suffix to attempt to extract a reasoning behind the apparent disparity above. When used with an adjective/adverb, as is the case above, the suffix “-al” signifies relation. For example, a tuba is a “music-al” instrument. The suffix “-ative” or “-ive” signifies that an object has the nature or quality of whatever the root word is. For example, glue is an “adhes-ive” – by its very nature it exhibits the quality of adhesion (i.e., it binds surfaces together and resists separation).
While these two suffixes seem similar at first, we can observe why they are different. A tuba isn’t “musica-tive” for two reasons: First, “musicative” isn’t a word. Second, a tuba is not, by its nature, composed of music. It is composed of brass. You could say that an opera is “musicative” (if it were a word, that is) because an opera is, by its nature, music. An opera cannot be not musical; its nature would be fundamentally different.
The same logic applies to “preventative.” Brushing your teeth is a preventative step to avoid cavities; the action is, by its nature, a hindrance or impediment to tooth decay (i.e., “prevention”).
The list of English suffixes is enormous, and I don’t have the time or space to examine them all (although I did find out that “numisma” means “coin,” as in “numismatics:” the study or collection of currency). I encourage you to do a little studying on your own time, though (right after you clean out the garage and finally get around to sorting your record collection).