Grammar Hammer: Incent, Incentive, Incentivize?


A classic sales tactic is to create a promotion that gives potential customers an incentive to buy.

Almost every advertisement for a new car includes incentives for trading in your old one, or having the dealership do your taxes and double your refund to use as your down payment.

One highly-publicized example of “incentive marketing” was Chipotle Mexican Grill’s promotion to give away a free burrito with every tofu entree purchased. Even though many of Chipotle’s customers are meat-lovers, they were given an incentive to try a vegetarian option.

This made me want to look at the history of the word “incentivize.” At first, I thought it was merely our modern habit of taking a noun, adding “-ize” to the end of it and coming up with a new verb (for example, woman + ize = womanize). Language is always evolving and I always thought “incentivize” was a fancy way of saying “motivate” or “encourage.”

I also didn’t think “to incent” was a proper verb. To me, it sounded too similar to “incite” and I don’t think managers want to provoke their employees.

Grammar Hammer Incentive Final

However, “incent” and “incentivize” are now recognized in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, so even though these sound like non-words to me, they’re here to stay.

There is one important distinction between “incent/incentivize” and “encourage/motivate,” and it’s the nuance that needs to be seen.

Incentives are a reward and are used when the target audience isn’t propelled into action without the incentive.

Encouraging and motivating someone is part of good leadership and doesn’t require a carrot at the end of a stick.

I can accept the fact that “incentivize” is a word and will likely see its use increase, but I can also decide that in my own writing, I will find another word.

If I’m trying to motivate or encourage my team by offering them a perk or reward, it’s an incentive. I do not intend to incite or incent them.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at [email protected]

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Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire. A version of this post originally appeared on Beyond PR.

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