Optimal Minimum? When to Use -um or -al

For a while now, it’s been bugging me whether to use optimum or optimal. Same with minimum and minimal. But I don’t have a need to use maximal… despite it being a word, too. So -um or -al?

Think about it:

Maximum damage
Minimal damage
Optimmmmm… um damage?

So admittedly I’m a word nerd. Plus, it’s my job to care about this stuff. But maybe you have been wondering about it, too. Maybe you have hesitated when finishing off one of those words. Or stared at your writing for a bit, switching back and forth between endings.

Of course you can pull out your handy, dandy dictionary. You mean you don’t have a bookmark for Merriam-Webster? I do, and they even wrote a nice little ditty about whether to use optimum or optimal!

You bet I was overjoyed to find out scientists created this word. Scientists are awesome!

Definitions of -um and -al

Despite their tidy article about the pair of words, if you look into these definitions, it turns out they all follow the same pattern.

The ones ending in -al are all adjectives. That’s their only role. They modify something else.

The ones ending in -um are all listed mainly as nouns. Objects. Things, albeit abstract ones.

However, under the main entries in M-W for the -um words I’ve mentioned is the Other Words From section. And all of them are also listed as adjectives here.

So in the end, it turns out if you need an adjective, you get to choose which you prefer! But if you need a noun, go with the -um.

Jensen Ackles doesn't know if it's -um or -al either.
Yeah, it’s confusing. Go with -um.

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