Friday, July 4, 2008

Incensed about "Incent"

I haven't been so mad at Joe Kennedy since he failed to oppose the first Gulf War.

What is it that has my dander up, you ask? Is it the proposal that he and his group, Citizen Energy, are advocating to tax Big Oil's profits so we can offer fuel assistance to the poor and invest in alternative energy? No, I am all in favor of that! Is it the development credits he wants the government to offer "to incent the industry to find new energy sources"? No. I think it's a bad idea to bribe the rich to do what they ought to do anyway--but that's not what irks me right now.

It's that word "incent." Or rather, non-word. I am perfectly willing to admit that language changes over time. Shakespeare invented hundreds of words that didn't exist before he wrote his plays. I am just not willing to admit "incent" to the language without a fight.

Here are ten ways Joe could have proposed his tax credits without polluting the English language:

  1. Motivate the industry
  2. Convince the industry
  3. Provide an incentive to the industry
  4. Offer an incentive to the industry
  5. Grant an incentive to the industry
  6. Nudge the industry
  7. Spur the industry on
  8. Give the industry a reason
  9. Attract the industry
  10. Light a fire under the industry
Joe could have chosen the turn of phrase that most precisely conveyed what he meant. "Providing" incentives, for instance, he would have emphasized what he was doing for those rascals in the oil industry, whereas "granting" an incentive would have placed the stress on how generous we, the public, would be to do so--and "spurring" the industry makes them seem like a lazy horse that won't go anywhere without a sharp kick in the sides.

Instead, it's Joe's language that's lazy, and it won't carry us where he wants us to go. Ask youself: when in my daily routine do I "incent" anyone? If you don't do it in normal life--if it takes you a moment even to understand what the word means--why would you be persuaded to do it in public affairs?

This post is dedicated to the Grammar Vandal, my tenant, Kate McCulley. Next month she moves into Boston to live with her sister. Her blog remains at, and I urge you to check it out.

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