Accumulative vs. Cumulative

Hooray! I got a question from the Peanut Gallery on Fat Tuesday!  John writes from Bahrain:

“I have been building an Excel spreadsheet. At the column heading for a daily reading that is adding up each day’s barrels produced for a cumulative volume, I have a coworker (Scottish) who changed the word I used ‘cumulative’ to ‘accumulative.’ Which is correct to use? I have looked them up in a dictionary, and it doesn’t explain the difference.”

Well, John, in certain situations, both of these adjectives can mean the same thing: increasing the total by successive additions, which is basically what you are doing in that particular spreadsheet column, adding another day’s worth of oil in barrels to the total. So I would say you are both right. However, “cumulative” is used far more often than “accumulative” (30 to 1) for that specific meaning. Normally I do not condone democracy in grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but in word choice it’s best to go with the crowd if you wish to communicate clearly to the crowd.

One of the definitions of “cumulative” is “formed by the addition of new material of the same kind,” which works for oil barrels, grade point averages in college, or even a periodical index (said the former librarian).

“Accumulative” also has another meaning: “tending to acquire” or “acquisitive,” especially when it comes to wealth.


Her accumulative tendencies could result in hoarding, if taken to the extreme.

His accumulative managerial style has resulted in Special Projects becoming the largest department of all the company’s business units.

In this sense, “accumulative” refers to the acquirer, whereas “cumulative” always refers to the stuff being acquired.
Funny Typo of the Day:  May 20111


One Response to “Accumulative vs. Cumulative”

  1. One Candle Says:

    Thanks. I edit dissertations, and I came upon the word “accumulative” where I would have said “cumulative.”

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