Rational, Rationale, and Rationalize

Commonly Confused Words

rational and rationale
The words rational, rationale, and rationalize all have something to do with reasoning but not in the same way. (PASIEKA/Getty Images)

The words rational, rationale, and rationalize all have something to do with reasoning, but they are different parts of speech and their meanings are not the same.

Definitions

The adjective rational means having or exercising the ability to reason. The antonym of rational is irrational.

The noun rationale refers to an explanation, basic reason, or statement of principles.

The verb rationalize means to find reasons or excuses that explain or justify certain actions, thoughts, or behaviors.

Rationalize can also mean to reorganize a business or system to make it more efficient and effective. The noun form is rationalization.

Of these three words, rationalize (in the first sense) most often carries a negative connotation.

Examples

  • "No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude."
    (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge, 1945) 
  • The senator challenged the government's rationale for the financial bailout.
     
  • "Denial is any addict’s first defense. No obstacle to recovery is greater than the infinite capacity to rationalize our compulsive behaviors."
    (Tony Scwartz, "Addicted to Distraction." The New York Times, November 28, 2015) 
     
  • "For [John D.] Rockefeller to rationalize the business [of Standard Oil], he had to concentrate his capital, shutting down inefficient members of the alliance and thus shutting out many individuals for whom the industry had been not only their livelihoods, but their lives. In their place, Rockefeller created a modern, centralized firm managed by professionals from a multi-storied office building . . . in New York City. It was this central office through which the process of moving the firm's resources from less efficient to more efficient facilities was managed."
    (Richard S. Tedlow, The Rise of the American Business Corporation, 1991; rpt. Routledge, 2001)
     

    Practice

    (a) What is the mayor's ____ for trying to sell three of the city's public hospitals?

    (b) "We routinely procrastinate, make poor investments, waste time, fumble important decisions, avoid problems and _____ our unproductive behaviors, like checking Facebook instead of working."
    (Jennifer Kahn, "The Happiness Code." The New York Times, January 14, 2016)
     

    (c) "It is not to be forgotten that what we call _____ grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts."
    (Thomas Henry Huxley, "The Natural Inequality of Man," 1890)

    (d) "[C]onservation managers failed to make the fishery more rational. They tried to _____ and simplify an unwieldy, complex ecological system. They tried to manufacture salmon by the billions. They 'improved' salmon streams by weeding out the messy nature and making streamlined, open avenues for spawning salmon. They killed thousands of predatory fish and birds and tried to minimize salmon mortality. Their simplified ecosystem, however, was less productive than complex, chaotic nature."
    (David F. Arnold, The Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska. University of Washington Press, 2008) 
     

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Rational, Rationale, and Rationalize

    (a) What is the mayor's rationale for trying to sell three of the city's public hospitals?

    (b) "We routinely procrastinate, make poor investments, waste time, fumble important decisions, avoid problems and rationalize our unproductive behaviors, like checking Facebook instead of working."
    (Jennifer Kahn, "The Happiness Code." The New York Times, January 14, 2016)

    (c) "It is not to be forgotten that what we call rational grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts."
    (Thomas Henry Huxley, "The Natural Inequality of Man," 1890)

    (d) "[C]onservation managers failed to make the fishery more rational.

     They tried to rationalize and simplify an unwieldy, complex ecological system. They tried to manufacture salmon by the billions. They 'improved' salmon streams by weeding out the messy nature and making streamlined, open avenues for spawning salmon. They killed thousands of predatory fish and birds and tried to minimize salmon mortality. Their simplified ecosystem, however, was less productive than complex, chaotic nature."
    (David F. Arnold, The Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska. University of Washington Press, 2008) 

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Rational, Rationale, and Rationalize." ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2016, thoughtco.com/rational-rationale-and-rationalize-1689601. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, May 3). Rational, Rationale, and Rationalize. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rational-rationale-and-rationalize-1689601 Nordquist, Richard. "Rational, Rationale, and Rationalize." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rational-rationale-and-rationalize-1689601 (accessed January 18, 2018).