This phony word, a creature of the 1970s, was invented to contrast with “reactive,” as in: “This program takes a proactive approach to sexually transmitted diseases, teaching prevention and informing young people of their risks.”
A reactive approach to sexually transmitted diseases would surely be a day late, and the delay might well be deadly. But does PROACTIVE really express what makes this program commendable?
Assuming the word expresses anything at all-a tenuous but defensible assumption-it is a poor substitute for “preventive,” which is, we are told, exactly what the sexually transmitted disease program really is.
Sometimes, though, PROACTIVE is employed not to describe something preventive, but merely something done in advance of trouble. In that case, the word that writers are seeking might be “preparatory” or “pre-emptive,” or even just “early.” In some cases, the writer is trying to say that someone should take the initiative. The defenders of PROACTIVE, however, refuse to surrender to “preventive” or “pre-emptive” or “taking initiative” or anything else, because most of the time they want a word that means none of those things, but that really just means “aggressive.”