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TWTS: Exploiting pronunciation variants to break down "exploitative"

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When something or someone exploits other things or people, we can say they’re “exploitive.” We can also say they’re “exploitative” or “exploitative.”

Okay, that second part didn’t translate very well to print. It’s just a matter of which syllables and vowels you choose to emphasize: either “ex-PLOY-ta-tive” or “ex-ploy-TAY-tive.

If you look in standard dictionaries, you won’t find the second pronunciation, which is the newer of the two. If that’s your variant though, don’t worry, you’re not wrong. Language is always in flux.

The adjective “exploitative” goes back to the verb “exploit.” The American Heritage Dictionary lists two definitions: “to employ to the greatest possibly advantage” and “to make use of selfishly or unethically.”

Since “exploit” tends to have negative connotations, the AHD’s second definition is probably more in line with how many of us use it. This is an example of how once a word picks up negative connotations, it can be hard to use it in positive or neutral contexts.

Consequently, the adjective form “exploitative” also has negative connotations. It means “exploiting” or “tending to exploit.” Especially, as Merriam-Webster notes, “unfairly or cynically using another person or group for profit or advantage.”

As we mentioned, there are three different ways to pronounce “exploitative.” The earliest one is “exploitive,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is first recorded in writing in the mid-1800s.

In the late 1800s the pronunciation “ex-PLOY-ta-tive” shows up and becomes the more common variant by the 1920s. Today, it’s eight times more common than “exploitive.”

Finally, we have “ex-ploy-TAY-tive.” Though its commonality is unclear, this variant is definitely out there. You can find examples on the English pronunciation site YouGlish, all of which come from North America.

Regardless of where it stands, “ex-ploy-TAY-tive” is on Professor Anne Curzan’s radar.

“This is language change in progress,” Curzan says. “I can’t explain why English speakers have shifted the stress in [exploitative], but sometimes we shift stress and now I’ve got my eye on this one.”

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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