Envy, Jealousy

Words that convey similar meanings sometimes come to be used interchangeably. In the case of envy/envious and jealousy/jealous, though, the move seems to have been in one direction only; jealousy is often used in place of envy (“I’m so jealous of your new job”) but not vice-versa (one does not write, for example, “He was poisoned by his envious wife.”). Theodore Bernstein further points out that jealousy is sometimes used, not merely in place of envy, but as a stronger form: “‘There, within a stone’s throw of the sea, he makes his home, and his description of how he does this makes one move from envy to downright jealousy.’”1 A human, and perhaps all-too-familiar, state of affairs—anyone who denies having experienced such a progression of emotion is either hopelessly out of touch with his or her feelings or a liar.

However, although jealous has been used in place of envious since the late 1300s2 and using jealous as a more intense form of envious creates no confusion, it is often held that the words have distinct meanings and that this distinction should be maintained. Even authorities sometimes flounder around a bit when trying to nail the distinction,3 but in general envy is taken to convey a coveting of the wealth, possessions, or success of someone else,4 whereas jealousy is often taken to convey a state of “intolerance of a rival for the possession of a thing which one regards as peculiarly one’s own or for the winning of which one has set one’s heart….”4 Jealousy also can be used in a less grasping sense to indicate the understandable guarding of some possession or attribute, as in “new colonies were jealous of their new independence.”5 Both of the latter meanings highlight that jealousy concerns an attitude toward something that one has or believes one has. In this sense, envious and jealous are not interchangeable—one can jealously guard something, but one cannot enviously guard something.

However, jealous also often carries a frank note of hostility, “a strong implication of distrust, suspicion, enviousness, or sometimes anger.4 This might suggest why the person seeking a word with a bit more heft than envious will sometimes use jealous instead—quite simply, when casting about for a suitably malicious word in the heat of the moment, jealous is low-hanging fruit.

On the other hand, envy is not the innocuous little milquetoast that it at first seems. True, it can be used without malice; one can say, for example, “I don’t envy him his mother in law.” Equally true, it has in the past been used in a noble sense—Aristotle wrote of “good envy,” an admiration that drives one to emulate another3—although that usage has been rare since the 1600s and is now nearly obsolete.6 Certainly, envy carries less emotional charge than jealousy. But to assume that envy is simply a meek cousin of jealousy is to make a mistake.

If jealousy implies strong emotion that often is perhaps all too apparent to everyone involved, envy can imply something more clandestine; as Joseph Epstein puts it, “Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy.”3 Used in this sense, envy suddenly becomes a different animal altogether, and, as Epstein further points out, “The openness changes the nature of the game. Envy is almost never out in the open; it is secretive, plotting, behind the scenes.”3 Perhaps this is another reason that jealousy is often used, albeit subconsciously, in place of envy—after all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; jealousy is not.

In short, although envy and jealousy have long been used interchangeably and jealousy has come to be frequently used in place of envy, the words do denote different states, and the careful writer should take care to maintain the distinction between them. Both can be used in neutral ways (“She was jealous of her honor”; “I don’t envy him his workload”), but both also can carry weightier meanings; in choosing between them, one might keep in mind that “The real distinction is that one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have.”3

The bottom line:

● Looking for a word that expresses the coveting of what someone else has? Use envy.

● Looking for a word that expresses the guarding of what one has or believes one has? Use jealousy.

● Keep in mind that although jealousy is often used as a more intense form of envy, it might be better to use another word or to reword the sentence so as to retain envy.—Phil Sefton, ELS


1. Envy, jealousy. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:166-167.

2. Jealous. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:892.

3. Epstein J. The green-eyed monster: envy is nothing to be jealous of. Washington Monthly website. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.epstein.html. July/August 2003. Accessed December 13, 2011.

4. Envious, jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 1984:295.

5. Jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:671.

6. Envy. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:523.

Free-range Verbs

“Patients in the intervention group received doses of study drug in the range of 80 to 325 mg.”

“Patients in the intervention group received doses of study drug ranging from 80 to 325 mg.”

Both of these sentences use forms of the verb range in the sense of “to change or differ within limits”1 or “to vary between certain limits; to form a varying set or series.”2 And both use the word correctly, yes?

The answer would at first seem to be a firm “perhaps.” Some language purists might suggest that range is a verb (at least when so used), and it is not possible for doses and other inanimate subjects to “range.” In this view, the second sentence above would be incorrect. On the other hand, the use of range with inanimate subjects seems quite widespread in everyday speech and writing (eg, “prices ranging from $1 to $15”; “topics ranging from A to Z”). So is this a case of language purists insisting on a distinction that has long since begun to evaporate or yet another case of language becoming more permissive with time?

When attempting to formulate an answer to this question, at least 3 concepts might come into play. First, it is important to note that, unlike some languages such as Japanese3 and the American Indian language Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin),4 which have different verb forms for use with animate and inanimate subjects, English makes no such distinction. So perhaps those who insist that verbs may be used only with animate subjects are taking their cue from the grammars of other languages with which they might be familiar.

Second, English does distinguish between animate and inanimate subjects when it comes to selecting relative pronouns—who is used with animate subjects (eg, “Patients who received the study drug….”); that is used with groups or inanimate subjects (eg, “The group that best responded….”; “The drug that was administered first….”). Setting aside the questions of whether that constructions are always necessary in such sentences (“The drug administered first….”) and also of whether who should be used only when the subject is human and that used when the subject is nonhuman but animate, it seems possible that a distinction maintained for one part of speech has been analogously applied to another.

Third, there is some precedent in English for avoiding the possessive with inanimate subjects, although that precedent has been on the wane for some time. As early as 1965, Theodore Bernstein quoted American grammarian George O. Curme as saying that, to take the possessive, “‘the [subject] must usually have some sort of individual life like a living being, but this idea of life may be very faint. It is faintest when the name of a thing is used as the subject of a gerund, where it is often not felt at all.’”5 In his discussion Bernstein cites such common examples as “death’s door,” “sun’s warmth,” “ship’s propeller,” and “storm’s fury”; he further notes that inanimate subjects may take the possessive when poetic effect is desired, citing as examples “April’s breeze” and “river’s trembling edge.” However, Bernstein does also point out that the use of the possessive with inanimate subjects is a throwback to previously accepted usage: “Undoubtedly we are witnessing these days a reversion in part from the prepositional genitive—the specialty of the day—to the simple ‘s’ genitive of the older days—the day’s specialty.” So again, it seems entirely possible that over time a distinction maintained for one part of speech might have come to be analogously applied to another; moreover, if that is the case, the new distinction (verbs should be used only with animate subjects) seems to have been based on a distinction (only animate subjects can take the possessive) that superseded earlier usage (animate and inanimate subjects can both take the possessive) but that is once again in decline.

Certainly the use of verbs such as range with inanimate subjects has been accepted since at least the 1830s.2 When David Livingstone wrote in 1857 that “The thermometer early in the mornings ranged from 42° to 52°,”2 he surely meant that the temperature varied between those limits—but he nevertheless was using range in a manner already accepted and considered correct. In a discussion of which prepositions best follow range, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites an example from 1973: “‘…ranging from a whisper to a bray.’”6 (Incidentally, it is pointed out in that same discussion that while Bernstein states that range should be followed only by the prepositions through, with, along, or between, in actual usage range is most commonly followed by from.) More recently still, the 10th edition of the AMA Manual of Style provides, in a discussion of an unrelated point, the example “The percentage of patients who reported gastrointestinal symptoms ranged from 20% to 30%.” (§19.7.2, Percentages, p 831 in print). However, it is worth keeping in mind that when using ranging or ranged with inanimate subjects and describing variation between set limits, those limits should be specified whenever possible (eg, “doses ranging from 80 to 325 mg”) to avoid imprecision.

So free up those verbs, and let those cases, diagnoses, doses, incidence rates, etc, range from X to Y. Just be certain that X and Y are defined when possible, and avoid constructions such as “widely ranging doses” or “incidence rates ranged widely.” —Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Range. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1030.
2. Range. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1508.
3. More verbs, Japanese grammar and the particle “ni.” All About Teaching English in Japan Web site. http://www.all-about-teaching-english-in-japan.com/Japanesegrammar.html. Accessed January 3, 2012.
4. Anishaabemowin grammar: verbs: transitivity and animacy. University of Wisconsin Letters and Science Learning and Support Services Web site. http://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/AIS/Grammar/InflMorphology/verbTransitivity.html. Accessed January 3, 2012.
5. Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Atheneum; 1965:336-337.
6. Range. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989:796.

Flaunt, Flout, Vaunt

Malapropisms: as users of language, we are all guilty of using them sometimes. In the heat of trying to express ourselves, we use one word in place of another—particularly when those words sound similar—and soon we are flaunting accepted usage. Or would that be flouting accepted usage?

To begin with, flaunt relates to vainglorious or ostentatious display, whereas flout denotes an expression of disdain or contempt, often for something forbidden by rule or custom (one grammar blog neatly sums this up by stating that “you flaunt something you like and flout something you don’t”1). Flaunt is used transitively (“Lamilia stopped off to flaunt her ermine and her jewels”) as well as intransitively (“Lamilia came flaunting by, garnished with the jewels whereof she beguiled him”2(p602)) and also is often used in a quasi-transitive sense2(p602) (eg, the currently common “If you’ve got it, flaunt it”). Similarly, flout may be used transitively (eg, the currently common “flout the law”) or intransitively (“It never came into our thoughts… to flout, in so bold a manner”2(p609)). However, flout is not typically used in the quasi-transitive sense.

So flaunt and flout, while often confused, do have distinct meanings. Prescriptive grammarians will point out that flaunt and flout are thus distinct terms and should not be used interchangeably, whereas grammarians with more descriptive leanings will be less inclined to observe a distinction in meaning, in particular maintaining that flaunt may sometimes be used when prescriptive usage would call for flout. Indeed, some authorities, such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now accept the use of flaunt in place of flout in certain constructions—specifically, when the transitive is required (“meting out punishment to the occasional mavericks who operate rigged games, tolerate rowdyism, or otherwise flaunt the law”3). However, at least in relation to this pair of words, the prescriptivists would seem to hold the upper hand. First, flaunt is acceptable (from a descriptive standpoint) in place of flout only when the transitive is required. Second, flout is rarely used in place of flaunt. Third and most importantly, flaunt and flout are similar only in the way they sound, rather than in their (until recently) accepted meanings.

To further complicate matters, though, flaunt is sometimes—albeit quite rarely—confused with vaunt, which denotes boasting or bragging. Like the former, vaunt may be used transitively (“He vaunts his Conquest, She conceals Her Shame”2(p2217)) or intransitively (“They laud their verses, they boast, they vaunt, they jest”2(p2217)) and as early as the 1600s was used in a quasi-transitive sense (“to vant it or vie in gaming”2(p2217)). However, the confusion between flaunt and vaunt stems not only from their marked similarity in sound but also from their somewhat similar meanings (to display oneself boastfully or ostentatiously, often so as to show off one’s attractiveness or possessions, compared with using language boastfully, often to boast of an accomplishment). Indeed, given the similarities in sound and meaning that exist between these two words, it is perhaps surprising that they are not confused more often. On the whole, however, language users usually seem to recognize the difference between these words, and even descriptive usage does not yet support the use of vaunt in place of flaunt or vice versa.

In short, flaunt, flout, and vaunt are sometimes used as malapropisms for one another, particularly in spoken language. However, these terms have distinct meanings and, despite their similarity in sound as well as the increasing support in some circles for sometimes using flaunt in place of flout, currently it is preferable to maintain the distinctions between these terms and to use them as they have predominantly been used over time. Or, to take some liberties with the quasi-transitive:

If you’ve got it, flaunt it;

If you did it, vaunt it;

If they forbid it, flout it.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Motivated Grammar: Flout good taste; flaunt your excesses. http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/02/23/flout-good-taste-flaunt-your-excess/. Accessed November 30, 2011.
2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.
3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:477.

Condition, Disease, Disorder

“Disease often fortifies the system against the action of remedies.”

“Disorder often fortifies the system against the action of remedies.”

Which of these sentences is correct? As it happens, the first is an actual quote (H. C. Wood, 1879)1(p445) and so in that sense is the “correct” one. However, the question remains: What are the differences, if any, between disease and disorder? For that matter, where does the often-used condition fit in? While these terms are frequently used interchangeably, differences between them do exist and can assist the person wishing to use them in more specific senses.

Condition is perhaps the least specific, often denoting states of health considered normal or healthy but nevertheless posing implications for the provision of health care (eg, pregnancy). The term might also be used to indicate grades of health (eg, a patient might be described as in stable, serious, or critical condition). While this term is often used in medical discussions to specifically indicate the presence of pathology or illness, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary provides no definition of the term used in this sense. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, however, defines condition as “a usu. defective state of health,”2(p258) and the Oxford English Dictionary similarly opines that it denotes “[a] state of health, esp. one which is poor or abnormal; a malady or sickness.”1(p309) In lay conversation condition is sometimes used euphemistically when a discreet term is desired for reference to a state of health, either well or ill—for example, delicate condition was once commonly used to refer to either pregnancy or alcoholism. Similarly, condition understood specifically to indicate the presence of pathology or illness is sometimes used as a value-neutral term when a stronger term might not be desirable. When such considerations do not come into play, a condition conferring illness can be further classified as a disease or a disorder.

“He was full of such disease. That he may nought the deth escape” (1393).1(p445)

Disease is often used in a general sense when referring to conditions affecting a physical system (eg, cardiovascular disease) or a part of the body (eg, diseases of the foot). The term also may be used in specific senses—for example, a writer might refer in general terms to neurologic disease or in specific terms to Alzheimer disease. But disease is perhaps most often used when referring to a condition that possesses specific characteristics. In this vein, Merriam-Webster’s defines disease as “a condition of the… body or one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms…”2(p358); the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word similarly but particularly stresses structural change as a cause.1(p445) Dorland’s concurs with these sources but makes clear that the impaired functioning associated with the diseased state may constitute “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function…” and further elaborates that “the etiology, pathology, or prognosis may be unclear or unknown.”3(p535)

“A Fever is the first disorder that affects the Blood and Vessels” (1725).1(p449)

Compared with disease, disorder is less restrictive: Merriam-Webster’s defines it simply as “an abnormal physical or mental condition,”2(p360) a definition with which Dorland’s largely concurs.3(p555) The Oxford English Dictionary emphasizes that disorder involves a disturbance of function but again further stresses structural change, this time in negative terms, stating that disorder is “usually a weaker term than DISEASE, and not implying structural change.”1(p449) This emphasis on functional rather than structural change has been in place since at least the late 1800s, when the Lexicon of Medicine and Allied Sciences stated that disorder is “a term frequently used in medicine to imply functional disturbance, in opposition to manifest structural change.”1(p449) Because disorder, like condition, is relatively value-neutral when compared with disease, it is often used in place of the latter term when a less stigmatizing or less alarming term is desirable—eg, a clinician might at first refer to a patient’s disease as a disorder to reduce the patient’s initial anxiety; similarly, the same patient might initially refer to his or her recently diagnosed disease as a disorder in conversations with family and friends.

In short, what distinguishes condition, disease, and disorder from one another would seem to be their relative emphases on functional change, structural change, presence of signs and symptoms, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the gravity a writer wishes to convey:

Condition simply indicates a state of health, whether well or ill; a condition conferring illness might be further classified as a disease or a disorder—however, condition might be used in place of disease or disorder when a value-neutral term is desired.
Disease denotes a condition characterized by functional impairment, structural change, and the presence of specific signs and symptoms. As an aside, Dorland’s equates the terms illness and sickness with disease; while these are often used to indicate the state or experience of disease, they are also sometimes used as value-neutral alternatives for disease.
Disorder, in contrast, denotes a condition characterized by functional impairment without structural change and, while certain disorders or categories of disorders might be accompanied by specific signs and symptoms, their presence is not required for a condition to be termed a disorder. Like condition, disorder is sometimes used as a value-neutral term in place of disease.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991.
2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.
3. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. 31st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2007.

Cheat Sheet for Abbreviations Style

Abbreviations are a convenience, a time saver, a space saver, and a way of avoiding the possibility of misspelling words. However, a price can be paid for their use. Abbreviations are sometimes not understood. They can be misread, or are interpreted incorrectly. … The person who uses an abbreviation must take responsibility for making sure that it is properly interpreted.—Neil M. Davis1

Abbreviations are used widely in medical articles, and great care should be taken to provide expansions that define these abbreviations. The AMA Manual of Style includes a straightforward rule regarding the use of abbreviations: Define abbreviations at first mention by providing the expanded term first, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, and the abbreviation is used thereafter.

But for every rule, there are exceptions.

Some Exceptions:

• Avoid creating abbreviations for terms that are easy to spell out and do not take up a lot of space. For example, it is not advisable to abbreviate “catheter ablation” as “CA” or “immune response” as “IR.” Also, avoid using too many abbreviations in any one article.

• If a term is better known as an abbreviation, provide the abbreviation first with the definition following in parentheses. “The TUNEL (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick-end labeling) staining assay was carried out using an apoptosis detection kit.”

• It is inelegant to begin sentences with abbreviations, unless the expansion is so unwieldy that using the abbreviation makes sense. The previous example, TUNEL, also works here. Rather than begin a sentence with the cumbersome expansion, it is acceptable to begin the sentence with the abbreviation TUNEL.

• Abbreviations should not be introduced in headings. If an abbreviation is being used for the first time in a heading, expand the abbreviation in the heading; then, at first mention in the running text after the heading, expand the abbreviation again, with the abbreviation following in parentheses. Use the abbreviation thereafter.

• Some very common abbreviations do not require expanding at first mention, such as AIDS, TNM, UV, and CD-ROM. A complete list of these abbreviations is provided in section 14.11, with those that do not require expansion denoted by an asterisk.

• The efficiency of using an abbreviation is lost if the abbreviation is used only one time, so as a rule of thumb, introduce an abbreviation only if it is used at least 2 or 3 times.

Items of Note:

• Tables, figures, and abstracts are treated as separate items from the text, so abbreviated terms must be reexpanded in each of these items.

• Use the appropriate article (a or an) before an abbreviation according to the sound following the article (eg, a UN resolution, an HMO plan).

• Use a lowercase s (and no apostrophe) when making abbreviations plural (eg, NSAIDs).—Lauren B. Fischer

1. Davis NM. MEDical ABBREViations: 28,000 Conveniences at the Expense of Communication and Safety. 13th ed. Warminster, PA: Neil M Davis Associates; 2007:1.

Masterful, Masterly

Writers are often taught that masterful and masterly mean different things and to ensure that they are used correctly. Masterful, so such thinking goes, is taken to mean “suggestive of a domineering nature,” or “inclined and [usually] competent to act as master,”1 whereas masterly is used to denote “having the power and skill of a master.”1

However, the use of masterful to mean “skillful” is now widespread; as Bernstein, clearly a proponent of maintaining the distinction, pithily puts it, “masterly is never misused; masterful often is….”2 Moreover, it seems that the distinction has not always been observed. Whereas masterful has been used in the sense of “domineering” since the 1330s,3 it also was used to mean “skillful” as early as 1613.3 And whereas masterly was used in the sense of “skillful” since the mid 1600s,3 it also was used to mean “domineering” as early as the 1530s,3 although that use has been obsolete since the late 18th century.3

In short, both words have been used to indicate “skillful” since roughly the time of King James I of England. However, the idea that writers should distinguish between them is comparatively new1—and such a late addition of a distinction is the reverse of the more common case, in which a distinction between words ceases to hold sway as the language evolves.

The origin of the distinction? Merriam-Websters posits that it was “excogitated by a 20th century pundit”1—this “pundit” apparently none other than Henry Watson Fowler, editor of The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, coeditor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The King’s English, and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.4 In the latter work, Fowler established a distinction between masterful and masterly that was taken up by authorities such as Bernstein2 and that continues to be trumpeted to this day.5 Fowler’s reason for introducing the distinction? Masterly has only 1 sense (at least since its use to mean “domineering” became obsolete), so masterful should be limited to a single sense as well.1

However, some also have argued for the use of masterful in place of masterly in adverbial constructions, pointing out that although masterly is properly used as an adverb as well as an adjective, its use as an adverb seems awkward, even incorrect; eg, “He paints masterly.”2 Moreover, masterly, like many words ending in “y,” is what Bernstein (who nevertheless advocates distinguishing between the words) calls a “reluctant” adverb—ie, a word that resists serving as or being turned into an adverb.6 To make matters worse, masterly takes another adverbial form, the admittedly horrid masterlily.

Where does this leave the conscientious writer? Like Fowler, several modern authorities deem the distinction a valuable one5 and often advocate recasting a sentence to allow a more mellifluous use of a reluctant adverb5,6: hence, the sentence “Its wooden gables… showed how masterly they had been carved of old”3 might be recast as “Its wooden gables… showed the masterly manner in which they had been carved of old,” or similar. “A retreat of this kind,” Bernstein maintains, “is better than clumsy bravado.”6

At least one like-minded authority, however, has conceded that the battle to maintain the distinction—whatever its merits—has likely been lost.5 The prevalence of masterful in everyday usage confirms that opinion, receiving further support from the fact that the words have developed in roughly parallel fashion over time.3 Merriam-Websters concurs, maintaining that masterful used in the sense of “skillful” “has continued in reputable use all along; it cannot rationally be called an error.”1 Moreover, it has been suggested that using masterful in its original sense might even confuse readers now accustomed to the use of masterful to mean “skillful.”7

The bottom line:

● Using masterful in place of masterly to mean “skillful”? You’re in good company, and that usage has a long history. However:

● Set on maintaining a distinction between masterful and masterly? You can’t go wrong there, either. True enough, some readers might be confused by the use of masterful in its original sense—but since when do writers shrink from using words correctly to avoid confusion?—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:764.

2. Masterful, masterly. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:269.

3. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1045.

4. Sheidlower J. Elegant variation and all that. The Atlantic Online Web site. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96dec/fowler/fowler.htm. December 1996. Accessed September 16, 2011.

5. Masterful, masterly. Good English Rules! Web site. http://www.goodenglishrules.com/masterful_masterly.htm. Accessed September 16, 2011.

6. Adverbs, reluctant. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:27.

7. Masterful vs. masterly. Grammarist Web site. http://www.grammarist.com/usage/masterful-masterly/. Accessed September 16, 2011.

Purposely, Purposefully

These words sound similar, and over time their meanings have come to overlap somewhat. Generally, however, they are regarded as having different meanings and uses—although the differences are admittedly subtle—and in choosing between them, writers should carefully consider the message they wish to convey.

Purposely—meaning “with a deliberate or express purpose”1 or “intentionally”2—was first on the scene, entering usage in the late 1400s.2 A second meaning, “to good purpose; effectively,” came into use about 100 years later but is now considered obsolete.2

In contrast, purposefully—meaning “full of determination”1—was a relative latecomer, not coming into use until the mid 1800s,2 and is still used in those senses. Over time, though, purposefully also has come to be used interchangeably with purposely in the sense of “intentionally,”2 perhaps because something done with determination is also done intentionally. But of course the reverse is not necessarily true, which suggests that writers should use purposely when referring to intention alone.

To some ears, however, purposely sounds uneducated or incorrect, leading some writers to instead use purposefully in error; moreover, writers simply looking for a more impressive word will also sometimes instead use purposefully—again incorrectly.3 But even when purposefully is the correct choice, writers should take care that their intended meaning is not misconstrued. For example, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposely elicit pain” likely simply means that the clinician is intentionally eliciting pain (for the purpose of making a diagnosis). On the other hand, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposefully elicit pain” might imply that the clinician is determinedly eliciting pain (again—one can only hope—for the purpose of making a diagnosis). In both instances, careful handling of the context can make clear that the elicitation of pain is a necessary evil in service of a worthy end. For example, simply ending either of the above statements with “to help make a diagnosis” can go a long way toward ensuring that the clinician is not construed as something of a sadist.

The bottom line:

●Is “intentionally” the intended message? Use purposely.

●Is “full of determination” the intended message? Use purposefully.

●In both cases, however, take care to ensure that the context helps readers determine the intended meaning.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1011.

2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1474.

3. Purposefully, purposely. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:376.

Jarring Jargon

Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, describes jargon as “meaningless, unintelligible speech,” which is how some people might describe their last conversation with their physician. In science and medicine, many barriers to clear communication exist, with jargon being one of them. In fact, it’s so difficult for physicians and patients to communicate clearly that a federal program has been created to promote simplified health-related language nationwide. The Health Literacy Action Plan is a “national action plan to improve health literacy.” The entire action plan is 73 pages (which is probably their first mistake) and it highlights the fact that we have a problem.

As editors, we know that jargon is to be avoided in medical literature. While jargon may evolve for the most innocuous of reasons, it is a vocabulary specific to a profession that sometimes is esoteric or pretentious and that can be confusing to those not familiar with it (sometimes to those familiar with it as well). “Inside talk” can be just that by design—it keeps outsiders out. Therein lies the source of the negative feelings about jargon.

In addition to being exclusive, some jargon is offensive and unprofessional. Have you ever seen an FLK? Probably. That’d be a funny-looking kid. “We bagged her in the ER” sounds ominous; what it means is that a patient was given ventilatory assistance with a bag-valve-mask prior to intubation in the emergency department. Hopefully the emergency department physician didn’t describe the patient as a GOMER. This means “get out of my emergency room” and could refer to, for instance, an elderly patient who is demented or unconscious and near death and who perhaps should die peacefully rather than occupy emergency department resources. In this example, jargon diminishes the complexity of a situation that should be dealt with in a more thoughtful way. As Bernstein writes, “All the words that describe the kinds of specialized language that fall within this classification [of inside talk] have connotations that range from faintly to strongly disparaging.”

Jargon also sometimes violates rules of grammar, eg, turning nouns into verbs, “The doctor scoped the patient,” or creating back-formations, like “The patient’s extremities were cyanosed,” instead of “The patient’s extremities showed signs of cyanosis.” Jargon can sometimes appear to depersonalize, by defining a person in terms of a disease. A “bypassed patient” may be one who has undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery rather than one who has been overlooked. Sometimes, patients might be referred to by their organs, such as “the lung in room 502” instead of “the patient in room 502 with lung disease.”

The AMA Manual of Style lists examples of jargon to avoid in section 11.4, Jargon. Some other examples that we’ve collected over the years are listed here:

* Collodion baby is better phrased as collodion baby phenotype or “the infant had a collodion membrane at birth.”

* Surgeons perform operations or surgical procedures, not surgeries.

* Rather than say a patient has a complaint, describe the patient’s primary concern.

* Do not use shorthand (eg, exam for examination, preemie for premature infant, prepped for prepared).

* Euphemisms sometimes are not clear and should be avoided: “The patient died” is preferred to “The patient succumbed or expired”; the same holds true for killed vs sacrificed (in discussion of animal subjects).

* Patients aren’t “put on” medication, they’re treated with medication. Also, patients aren’t “placed on” ventilators, they’re given ventilatory assistance.

Certainly jargon does have its place. It is specialized, and those in the same field can use it to communicate precisely and quickly. However, when it comes to medical and scientific publications, jargon is best avoided. Bernstein ends his entry on “inside talk” with the following: “It must never be forgotten that the function of writing is communication.” Clear enough.—Lauren Fischer


“The curve was fit to the data points.”

“The curve was fitted to the data points.”

Which is correct? The answer can betray some strong opinions. “Using fit that way makes one sound like a backwoods rustic.” “Using fitted that way makes one sound like a pedant.” “Everyone knows that fitted is simply the adjectival form of fit.” In fact, the story is a bit more involved.

Fitted is indeed the adjectival form of fit (eg, fitted sheet), but it also can be used as the simple past or the past perfect verb form. However, whether fit is also acceptable when forming past tenses is in part a matter of geography. In British usage, fitted is considered always correct; however, many authorities of American usage—Merriam-Webster’s, for example—accept either fit or fitted,1 and even among those holding that fitted is always correct, some—Bernstein, for example—make allowances for the use of fit in casual speech.2 Such allowances often open the door for increased acceptance of a given usage in more formal contexts as well; indeed, whereas fitted was once invariably accepted for both the simple past and the past perfect, the -ed form is gradually going the way of the dodo.3 Moreover, when given the choice, many language users in the United States simply prefer fit over fitted.4

Such preferences aside, however, context can make a difference. For example, fitted is used when referring to the tailoring of clothing3; eg, “I was fitted for a new suit.” In other contexts, it can be helpful to consider if fit is being used in the sense of “to conform to a particular shape or size”1; if so, some might hold that fit is correct for both the simple past and the past perfect.5 If, on the other hand, fit is being used in the sense of “to make or adjust to the right shape and size”1—or the closely related meaning alluded to in the opening examples, “to adjust (a smooth curve of a specified type) to a given set of points”1fitted is used for the simple past and either fit or fitted for the past perfect.5

Fit to be tied? The bottom line:

●Referring to the tailoring of clothing? Use fitted for both the simple past and past perfect.

●Referring to something being a particular size or shape? If you’re British or Canadian, you’re safest using fitted for both the simple past and the past perfect; if you’re from the United States, you’ll be in good company using fit for both, but be aware that some authorities advocate the use of fitted in writing and formal speech.

●Referring to adjusting something (other than clothing) to a particular shape or size? Referring to the fitting of a curve to data? If you’re British or Canadian, you’re still safest using fitted in all instances. If you’re from the United States, you’re safest using fitted for the simple past and either fit or fitted for the past perfect—but again, using fit in the latter context might be frowned on.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Fit. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:473.

2. Fit. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:186.

3. O’Conner PT. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 1996:65.

4. Fit vs. fitted—two options. Englishpage.com Web site. http://www.englishpage.com/irregularverbs/info/html. Accessed July 15, 2011.

5. Fitted vs fit. English-Test.net Web site. http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic19015.html. Accessed July 15, 2011.


If any doctor tells me, as I lie in my hospital bed, that my death will not only help others to live, but be symptomatic of the triumph of humanity, I shall watch him very carefully when he next adjusts my drip.—Julian Barnes1

He lays his hands flat on Addie, rocking her a little.—William Faulkner2(p147)

“[A]s I lie in my hospital bed”? Surely Barnes is correct—although some readers might wonder if this should read “as I lay in my hospital bed.” Similarly, Faulkner’s “He lays his hands flat on Addie” sounds correct, but is it really, in a novel in which sentences such as “You lay you down and rest you”2(p37) are used to so effectively communicate the rich idiom of that fictional world? Moreover, when Faulkner titles his novel As I Lay Dying, is he being grammatically correct or simply giving free rein to Addie Bundren’s vernacular? To further complicate matters, where would “lain” and “laid” fit into all this?

Ah, the joys of irregular verbs. In English, forming the simple past and the past participle forms of most verbs is simple—one simply adds -ed to the root form of the verb and is then free to knock off for the day. However, irregular verbs complicate this otherwise blissful state of affairs by requiring writers to memorize alternate forms for the past tenses. True enough, users of English have things pretty easy in this respect compared with users of some other languages, but English has enough irregular verbs—80 or more—to keep things interesting. Further complicating matters is that even the alternate forms of irregular verbs are sometimes irregularly applied—for example, sometimes the present and the past participle are the same (eg, become [present], became [simple past], become [past participle]), sometimes the simple past and the past participle are the same (deal, dealt, dealt), and sometimes the verb does not change form at all (hurt, hurt, hurt). Fortunately, though, memorizing the alternate forms for most irregular verbs seems to pose little problem for most English users.

So why all the angst when it comes to lie? It is just lie, lay, and lain, right? Well, so far so good—but what leads many English users astray is that lay, the simple past tense of lie, is also the present tense of lay, a different verb with a similar meaning. Lie means “To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position” or “to assume a horizontal position”3(p717); lay means “To put or set down” or “to place for rest or sleep.”3(p705) The difference is that lie is intransitive, meaning it communicates a complete action by itself; lay, in contrast, is transitive, meaning it needs to act on a direct object to communicate a complete thought. So Barnes’ “as I lie in my hospital bed” is correct—as is an imperative such as “You lie down”—because these sentences need no direct object to communicate a complete action. Similarly, “He lays his hands flat on Addie” is correct, as is As I Lay Dying—the former because the present form of lay describes an action on something (in this case, “his hands”) and the latter because lay in that case is not the present of lay but rather the simple past of lie. On the other hand, Faulkner’s “You lay you down and rest you” is not, in the strictest sense, correct—although this instance is interesting, because while the speaker is correctly using a direct object with the transitive lay, the direct object is not a true object but rather a reflexive (and in this case redundant) element, and the choice of verb is incorrect from the start; in effect, the speaker is saying “place yourself down,” which, if judged apart from the idiom of Faulkner’s novel, would clearly be incorrect. The correct form of the sentence would use the intransitive verb: “You lie down.”

So—presuming the English user wishes to use lie or lay in one of the senses indicated above and is not contemplating telling a lie, communicating with a lay audience, or getting the lay of the land—how to simplify this mess?

A few quick tips:

• Determine the correct verb to be used, remembering that lie is intransitive and lay is transitive and requires an object. It might be helpful to remember that lay is often used to mean “to place (something on)”—or, for the mnemonically minded: “to p-lay-ce (something on).”

Lied is never correct as either the simple past or the past participle of lie or lay when used in the senses indicated above—lied is used only when, for example, someone has just lied to someone else.

• For lie, the simple past and past participle forms are lay and lain (I lie dying, I lay dying, I have lain dying).

• For lay, the simple past and past participle forms are laid and laid (He lays his hands flat on Addie, He laid his hands flat on Addie, He has laid his hands flat on Addie).—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Barnes J. Nothing to Be Frightened Of. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2008:177.

2. Faulkner W. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York, NY: Random House; 2000.

3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.