Tag Archives: oblige or obligate

American -ates and -ations


The Americans usually shorten their words and phrases, given any opportunity. Take “three hundred fifty dollars” (cf. “three hundred and fifty pounds”), “it starts June 2” (cf. “it starts on June 2nd”), or “let’s go find him” (cf. “let’s go and find him”). They even take letters and syllables out of words  – eg. “color” cf. “colour”, “aluminum” vs. “aluminium”. So isn’t it interesting that there are a few words that have longer alternative versions — and it’s the longer rather than the shorter words that have been adopted into standard American English? An Englishman orients himself in a new city; his American spouse probably orientates herself with a map. The tourist from London would inquire (well, she would actually enquire) about what transport she can take to Boston; the American would ask about transportation. The sleazy limey is planning to burgle the house on the corner; the Yank was caught burglarizing his neighbor. Administrate is an uncommon version of the verb administer, and although it’s more widely heard in the U.S. (and it is acknowledged by dictionary consensus to be a real word), it’s generally considered disagreeable and best avoided.

There is one further pair of related words that some might argue have a subtle difference in meaning; however, I believe they are synonymous. Whereas the English feel obliged to say sorry at any given opportunity, even to inanimate objects, the Americans generally feel obligated to give up their seats to the elderly. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, oblige means “to make (someone) legally or morally bound to do something”, and obligate means “to require or compel (someone) to undertake a legal or moral duty”. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m British-born), they’re the same, and oblige suffices without the added ‘-ate’.

There are words for which the addition of an ‘-ate’ or ‘-ation’ does in fact change the sense of the root word. To comment is to make a single remark, whereas to commentate is to provide a steady flow of comments and observations, usually about a sports event. A protest is an expression of disapproval or objection to something said or done, but a protestation is an emphatic declaration that something either is or isn’t the case.

Can you think of other words with longer alternative incarnations that are favored by the Americans?