Which spelling is correct? Preventive or preventative maintenance?

You must have seen these two before – preventive and preventative – being used interchangeably. You may have even been corrected by someone, and based on the person who corrected you, you may have even less of an idea which one is correct.

Well, like a lot of the English language, there’s not a technically “correct” word to say because both of the words mean the same thing. So why are there two terms that are almost identical that mean the same thing? Why are both words often used?

To answer this question, we have to delve into a little linguistic history. The word “preventive” first saw use in 1602, appearing as the older English form “preuentiue” (imagine the U’s as V’s when you’re trying to pronounce it – it’s still weird). You might think that just solves the issue, but interestingly enough, the word “preventative” also showed up in a similar time period, appearing in 1651 in some text by Christopher Love.

Though they were both used commonly, “preventive” appeared more than “preventative.” But unlike some internet linguists, no one made much of a hubbub about the existence of the two nearly-identical words. In fact, they were used side-by-side for almost 200 years, some authors even using both of them in the same work!

So historically, neither word was more “correct” than the other. It seems that way today, as well – in fact, Merriam Webster doesn’t even distinguish between the two words, instead linking to the word “preventive” on the web page for “preventative.”

So what’s the issue here? Do people actually care which one gets used? If we look at the usage of both words in circulation, it seems that people do in fact care, and the trend is not just limited to people arguing on Twitter. According to Grammarist, the shorter form of “preventive” appears far more often as “preventative” in published works, giving it an edge when it comes to correct usage.

The bottom line? They are both viable choices for words, but I think you’ll find far more people saying “preventive,” especially in reference to preventive maintenance (PM) programs and maintenance – if you’re worried about using the correct word, stick with the shorter one.