- On March 24, 2015
“Any woman should run a mile from a man who uses the verb ‘incentivize.’” So wrote Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.
Sound advice—and not just for women on the dating circuit. People in business should run from the word, too. It’s corporate jargon, and it sucks the life out of your copy. You want to sound natural because that’s what people respond to, so stick with motivate and encourage. People have an emotional attachment to those words.
I recently took my first Uber ride while visiting San Francisco. My brother sent me an email explaining how it works. “You designate the tip ahead of time,” he wrote. “That sort of defeats the purpose of incentivizing good service, but the drivers are motivated by the ratings you give them after the ride.”
“Peter,” I shot back. “Did you just write incentivize?”
He’s a financial guy, so I asked him whether he thought incentivize carries any financial meaning. He said no and agreed “encouraging good service” would have worked—although it’s possible he was just trying to get me off his back.
A Wall Street Journal columnist recently used the word in a piece about electronic health records. She wrote, “Thanks in part to $27 billion in federal funds approved in 2009 to incentivize their use, electronic records have been increasingly adopted in health care.”
In this case, the incentives were financial, but the writer didn’t have to use the word; encourage would have been just fine.
I consulted Bryan Garner, one of the foremost experts on English usage and style, who had this to say about incentivize and the equally dreadful incent: “There is no good incentive to use either one.”
As for Christian Grey, the Fifty Shades of Grey protagonist, Anthony Lane concluded, “Things could have been worse. He could have said ‘monetize.’”