While doing a Profiency practice test (not that I have the level to pass it), I came to this question:

Use to word evolution to form a word to fill in the gap:

Their adaptability in such a short period in [...] terms has greatly surprised scientists.

The answer was evolutionary, but would evolutive be a correct option?

I've seen that many dictionaries don't include evolutive as a word (except Merriam) and Google gives by far more results for evolutionary. So is evolutive just a wrong translation from Spanish/French?

  • Please comment if the level is too low for the site, to know whether I should remove it or not.
    – jinawee
    Jul 3, 2014 at 0:02
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    I don't see how we could justify saying the level of the question is "too low" for ELL. The fact is evolutive is actually a valid word, even though it's so rare I'm not surprised it's not in all dictionaries. It's certainly not so rare as for OED to specifically mention that point. But as a non-native speaker, how are you to know how rare it is? Here's a picture though. It's very rare. Jul 3, 2014 at 0:34
  • Having said that, precisely because it's so obscure, I'm not sure exactly how one could establish with certainty that it would be semantically/grammatically "wrong" in your precise context. We can confidently say it's not the answer the examiner is looking for (it probably never occurred to him there even was an alternative form). But that's not the same thing, is it? Jul 3, 2014 at 0:47
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    @FumbleFingers it's arguable that because it's so obscure that it should be avoided, even if it's equivalent. In fact, I would say that, if it's so obscure that it's unlikely that a native speaker has heard it before, or would think it correct, that it's very possibly wrong. I don't think I've seen this term used before today, and even though I know what it means, I can easily understand the judgement that it's wrong based on usage.
    – jimsug
    Jul 3, 2014 at 4:13
  • @jimsug: Obviously, armed with the knowledge of the huge disparity in prevalence one could confidently identify the expected answer. But a non-native speaker who didn't know that could still reasonably "derive" both words from evolve/evolutionary using regular morphology, find definitions for both, and have no obvious way of choosing between them. Jul 3, 2014 at 11:43

1 Answer 1


Interesting questions, and I believe the answer to both of them is no. As FumbleFingers points out, I can't establish this with certainty, but I will undertake to explain why I believe this is so.

I took some time to read over a number of passages that use the term evolutive. In the examples I have examined, the term refers in all cases (leaving out several which are direct translations of the Spanish evolutivo) to the study, science, idea, or application of evolution as distinct from evolution itself. So you could say that the term adds one level of abstraction to the term evolutionary. Here is one example:

Software systems are conceived by developers in an iterative, recursive, and evolutive way. [1]

This means that developers conceive of software in iterations (one pass, then another pass that goes a bit deeper, and so on), going back through to correct things as they go (recursive), and that the conception of the software evolves over time as the designer's understanding of the problem domain (the problem that your software is going to solve) deepens.

Here's another:

Among the methods of interpretation employed in practice and doctrine are the textual, autonomous, teleological, evolutive or dynamic, and historic...Under the evolutive or dynamic school, the international authorities interpret the Convention in light of the current societal circumstances, secondarily incorporating the intentions of the framers of the document, which were shaped by an earlier and different societal context (historic method). [1]

In other words, if you use the evolutive method of interpretation, you believe that the interpretation of the Convention evolves over time. If you use the historic method of interpretation, you believe that it (the interpretation of the Convention) does not. (Interestingly, there are analogous schools of thought in Constitutional Law, regarding how the U. S. Constitution ought to be interpreted.)

Now, it would be ok to substitute the word "evolutionary" in these passages, but the term isn't quite as precise: evolutionary can (and very often does) refer either to the science or study of evolution or to evolution itself. For example, here are two books:

Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach
Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Interplay of Selection, Accident, Neutrality and Function

The first book is a series of essays arguing that objective knowledge evolves over time, so it is applying the idea of evolution to the idea of objective knowledge. It is obvious from context that it is not the approach that evolves, but objective knowledge. The second is a book about the dynamics of evolution.

Now, you could use the term "evolutive" in the first title (although it might sound a bit pretentious, since the meaning is obvious when you use the more common word), but the evidence suggests that it wouldn't be correct to use it in the second title since here the word is referring to evolution itself, or the dynamics thereof.

So, if you accept my assessment of the word's meaning, then the answer to your question is no, it is not a correct option. Your sentence is referring to a short period in terms of evolution itself, not in terms of the study, science, application, or idea of evolution. :)

  • +1 for going to the trouble (which I didn't) of thinking it through and checking out some actual usages of evolutive. Your final sentence sums it up well, but I think we'd have to admit if it takes even people like us more than a few seconds to establish a clear semantic distinction, OP need not feel his suggested alternative was ridiculously wrong. Incidentally, I'd now make that distinction on slightly different grounds... Jul 3, 2014 at 11:53
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    ... Evolutionary = relating to the biological process by which life-forms change across generations (because of DNA copying errors and the consequent implications for surviving long enough to pass on those "errors"). It could have other more general senses in other contexts, but when applied to a [short] period of time that seems to be the only credible one in purely semantic terms. Evolutive = relating to, reflecting, or promoting a process of evolution (by which anything can be "incrementally" changed, possibly as a deliberate problem-solving method). Jul 3, 2014 at 12:03
  • @FumbleFingers I like your distinction, which reads much more like a formal definition than mine. I might think that the definition for evolutive could function as a second distinct definition for evolutionary, though, based on examples. However, one could equally well argue that it's a misuse of the word evolutionary rather than a valid definition.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 11, 2014 at 1:26
  • The specific sense of evolution = the "Darwinian" process (which many still either disbelieve or consider to be just one of several "theories") covers a vital area of human knowledge that continues to make huge advances every decade even now (DNA wasn't that long ago, since which we've had Dawkin's "Selfish Gene", and we're still getting to grips with gene transfer, prions, etc.). I'd say that's so important it deserves a word of its own anyway. I'd be more than happy to give it full charge of evolutionary, and use evolutive for all the other related senses. Jul 11, 2014 at 10:56
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    I would too. Would that you and I were the dictionary police. :)
    – BobRodes
    Jul 12, 2014 at 5:56

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