Yesterday while watching the Olympics I heard the announcer say that a colleague would be joining him to “commentate” during an upcoming event. Is commentate a word? Or is it just another sportscaster-created back-formation, a jargon word that needlessly turns commentator into a verb? I wasn’t sure, so I had to look it up. (Aren’t you glad some people worry about these things so you don’t have to?) Here’s what I discovered.
According to several reliable usage authorities, “commentate” is indeed a back-formation that dates from the late 18th century. It is not, however, considered a “needless variant,” which would disqualify it from Standard English usage. Examples of needless-variant back-formations include administrate (from administration—although we have the perfectly fine verb administer) and orientate (from orientation—but we have the perfectly fine verb orient). Words like these and others, such as interpretate, solicitate, registrate, and conversate are not in accordance with Standard English usage. We should avoid them.
In the case of commentate, however, although it is a back-formation from the noun commentator, it isn’t a needless variant because the best alternative, comment, connotes making a brief statement—as in “The official commented on the recent allegations.” Commentate connotes a lengthier explanation or interpretation—which is what sportscasters do. One usage authority commented, “Some people dislike [commentate], but it has a specific context and serves a useful purpose.”
So go ahead and commentate, Mr. or Ms. sportscaster. Although a sample of grandiose jargon and an awkward word, commentate is acceptable English usage. Δ
 Back-formations are, most often, verbs created from existing nouns. They are “formed by removing suffixes from longer words that are mistakenly assumed to be derivatives” (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 2016, 90).
 Butterfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, 167)
© 2016 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.