Cumulative versus Accumulative

My friend, who works on a college campus, cringes when students talk about cramming for their accumulative exams. It’s not the cramming that annoys her. It’s their use of accumulative rather than cumulative.

The transitive verbs cumulate and accumulate both mean to pile up or amass. But accumulate, or the noun accumulation, are more common than cumulate or cumulation.

  • The accumulation of great wealth contributed to King Solomon’s downfall.

The adjectives cumulative and accumulative have more distinct meanings and usage, and here, cumulative is more common.

Cumulative refers to amassing or building up over time; growing by successive additions. Accumulative refers to the result of accumulating. It also implies an acquisitiveness or penchant for acquiring or accumulating things.

  • Warren Buffet’s accumulative instincts and ability to pick winners and losers are factors in his being one of the wealthiest Americans.

Those exams that cover all the material that’s accumulated in the course of a semester are cumulative. The accumulative effect of not keeping up on the notes and assignments all semester may well necessitate a night of cramming.

10 Responses to “Cumulative versus Accumulative”

  1. Kristina Stanley June 19, 2015 at 7:04 am #

    Now I’m just afraid to use these words 🙂

  2. Douglas R Thompson June 19, 2015 at 7:27 am #

    Okay, got it! Now, about flammable and inflammable!

    • John ORourke August 18, 2021 at 9:26 am #

      Flammable vs inflammable

      Flammable is something that burns.

      Inflammable is something that burns easily.

      Case in point gasoline is inflammable compared with jet fuel (jP4 or JP8) is flammable. Say what… if you lite a match and tossed into gasoline, it would burst into flame; if you did the same thing to jet fuel the match would go out. It is based on a flash point… you need the heat of a torch to ignite jet fuel.

      Want a simpler example? Place a match to a piece of notebook paper -results = it burns; place a match to a piece of raw coal and you will be waiting a long time and uses several matches. In fact, to burn at an energy plant, coal must be pulverized down to the finest of dust particles; the filters are so fine that you can barely see through them.

      • cslakin August 19, 2021 at 11:07 am #

        Merriam-Webster’s says the two words mean the same thing.

  3. Mike Wright March 15, 2019 at 2:59 pm #

    I could sit here and read this article until I’ve cumulated 15 extra pounds and still not understand the difference..

    • cslakin March 17, 2019 at 6:31 pm #

      I think of cumulative as things piling up. If you accumulate, it implies a longing or need, a possessiveness. Yes, it’s a subtle distinction. Exams that are cumulative build in points or grade. But they would never be accumulative, acquiring, hoarding, a desire to gather and protect. That’s extreme but maybe that helps?

      • Raya March 25, 2019 at 3:25 pm #

        Can you help with this thought? I’m reviewing something for a friend.
        Trust, like friendship is often an accumulative (or a cumulative) process. We trust in a small way and discover if more is warranted. If so, we trust again. Trust builds as actions reveal integrity. Trust grows as experience confirms our hopes.

        • cslakin March 26, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

          It would be cumulative. It builds upon itself. M-W one definition: increasing by successive additions.

          • Raya March 26, 2019 at 2:03 pm #

            Thank you so much!

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