Incentivize, incent

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To incentivize (or incentivise outside North America) is to motivate using the expectation of a reward. A late-20th-century coinage, the word was originally voguish business jargon, but it has caught on more broadly in this century. Many people object to it, not just because it’s new but also because it tends to take the place of older synonyms such as motivate, stimulate, and inspire. Its association with bad business writing also counts against it. But despite the objections, the word doesn’t seem to be going away. It is in fact becoming more common, and it has even begun to find its way into well-written, carefully edited texts. This suggests that many writers feel it is useful and that it is not an exact synonym of motivate, etc.

In early use, the word appears to have been most common in the U.S., though early examples show that it was by no means confined to the U.S., suggesting the word may have been less an Americanism than a well-traveled bit of global business-speak. And today, for mysterious reasons, the word is more common in the U.K. than in the U.S.

Incent, which means the same as incentivize, has the virtue of being somewhat old—the first example cited in the OED is from 1844, though the word seems to have fallen out of use through the middle decades of the 20th century—but it is viewed in much the same way as incentivize because of its recent flourishing in business jargon. Googling the word uncovers numerous pages devoted to griping over its existence. Fortunately for the gripers, incent has not gained the same broader use that incentivize has. It remains mostly confined to business writing.



[I]nstead of rewarding failure, an entrepreneur-oriented tax system would incentivize innovation, risk, and success. [Future Survey Annual 1984]

Second, there is the method of pricing, from cost-plus through various incentivised contracts to fixed price, each with their associated forms of risk-sharing. [New Conventional Weapons and Western Defence, Ian Bellany and Tim Huxley (1987)]

Small and medium employers can also be urged or financially incentivized by the government to introduce more labor-saving technologies. [Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective (1994)]

Senior management had raised the possibility of paying some bonuses in stock in an attempt to lock-in and incentivise staff, but had not delivered on that promise until now. [Financial News (2004)]

However, Makatouni (2002) suggests that the multiplicity of characteristics that organic food embodies, including health, environment and animal welfare, is the main incentivizer for consumption. [Global Europe, Social Europe (2006)]

Will the cash payments incentivise local communities to approve new developments, or will communities value their green space over the ‘Boles bung’? [Guardian (2013)]


[I]t is to be hoped there is a place for it and that it may have some influence in uplifting the women, arousing their ambition, and incenting them to learn to read. [Bible Society Record (1906)]

The side did better than was expected, because it was incented to do its best, and that the more so because it had to take the field without its veteran leader. [The Fortnightly Review (1912)]

[H]igh WIP inventory is recognized as a necessary part of a structure of no layoffs, flexible tasking, piece-rate compensation with a bonus-component to incent teamwork and high quality. [CFROI Valuation (1999)]

[T]he solution incents retailers to stock more products for brands that work with Shopatron. [press release on PR Newswire (2013)]

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