Q: I use “informational” to describe something that’s intended to provide information and “informative” to describe something that actually provides information. I suppose that means an informational program may or may not be informative, depending on how effective it is. Am I just making this up? Am I splitting hairs?
A: No, you’re not making it up, but you may be making too much of it. As for splitting hairs, we’ll let you decide.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “informational” this way: “Of, relating to, or involving information; conveying information, informative.”
Some of the OED citations refer to something merely “involving information” while others refer to something actually “conveying information.”
But the treatment of “informational” and “informative” by the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked suggests that you may be on the right track.
All the dictionaries define “informative” as providing information, especially useful information. But most of them don’t have separate entries for “informational,” and simply list it, without a definition, under the noun “information” as an adjectival form.
The Cambridge Dictionaries Online was the only standard dictionary we found with entries for both “informational” and “informative.”
In American English, the dictionary says, “informational” means relating to or providing information, while “informative” means providing useful information.
That seems to support you a bit. The dictionary’s British definitions seem to support you a bit more: “informational” means containing information while “informative” means providing a lot of useful information.
We’ll end with the etymologies of these two words, which are ultimately derived from the Latin verb informare (to shape, form an idea, mold someone’s mind).
The older English word, “informative,” showed up in the late 14th century, when it referred to the forming or shaping of something, especially a child in the womb, according to the OED.
In the late 16th century, Oxford says, lawyers began using the term “informative process” to describe a complaint or accusation.
By the mid-17th century, the adjective took on a more general sense: “Having the quality of imparting knowledge or communicating information; instructive.”
When “informational” showed up in the early 19th century, it referred to something that involves information or provides it.
As you can see, these two words overlap a lot. So what do we think?
Well, we use “informative” when we mean providing useful information, and “informational” when we mean providing information that may or may not be useful.
We hope you’ve found this useful.
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