Around, About, Approximately

Although each of these words is used to refer to a value that is estimated and therefore imprecise, whether it is acceptable to use them interchangeably depends in part on context and the level of accuracy being implied.

Some speakers and writers will use approximately before turning to the other two—not surprising, because people faced with a choice between words will often choose the most impressive-sounding one. And sometimes that choice happens to be correct. On the other hand, people will often, especially in casual communications, use around or about as a sort of verbal shorthand. And again, sometimes that choice happens to be correct.

So, what’s the scoop? To sort this out, it helps to recognize that authorities for the most part agree that around, about, and approximately lie on a scale from casual to formal. As it happens, around is also thought of as the most imprecise and approximately the most precise, with about falling somewhere in between. It further helps to note that around, meaning merely “with some approach to exactness,”1(p68) is not widely considered an adequate replacement for either about or approximately and thus is often accepted only in casual conversation.2 Hence, in conversation between friends, for example, many speakers will toss off a “See ya around three,” whereas in written communications, as Bernstein maintains, “‘about three o’clock’ is preferable to ‘around three o’clock.’”2

Things get a bit more complicated as one moves along the scale: not only does the choice of word depend in part on the closeness to accuracy required by different types of communication, but the differences between the implied degrees of closeness can be subtle. For example, Merriam-Webster’s defines about as “reasonably close to”1(p4) and approximately as “nearly correct or exact.”1(p61) However, it is safe to say that in nontechnical communications (which presumably often place less emphasis on precision), the use of about is not only accepted but is perhaps preferred. As Garner maintains, “When possible, use about instead of approximately, a formal word”3(p5)—where a “formal” word is defined simply as one “occupying an elevated level of diction.”3(pp153-154) On the other hand, as suggested by the above definitions, about does not emphasize a closeness to accuracy as strongly as approximately does—which helps explain why about seems fine when used to refer to estimated values that have been rounded to multiples of 5 or 10 but can seem strange when used to refer to unrounded values.4 Moreover, around and about each have multiple meanings and can be used in other senses, whereas approximately is used in a single sense only, leading some authorities to maintain that the latter is a better choice for technical communications.5

The bottom line:

● Referring to an inexact value in casual conversation? Around, about, and approximately are all acceptable, but approximately can sound a bit pretentious.

● Referring to an inexact value in nontechnical writing? About is perhaps the best choice, around being too informal and approximately being a tad too formal.

● Referring to an inexact value in medical or other technical writing? Although about may very occasionally be used if one carefully assesses the context, approximately is nearly always the best choice.—Phil Sefton, ELS

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

2. Around. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

4. Yateendra J. About and Around and Approximately: Shades of Difference? Editage website. Accessed August 1, 2012.

5. Scientific English as a Foreign Language: Around, About, Approximately. Worcester Polytechnic Institute website. 1997. Accessed August 1, 2012.

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: How can a user of your online manual tell if use of a particular word (such as namely) is discouraged?

A:  The first place to look might be chapter 11, Correct and Preferred Usage. But the word you used as an example is not included therein. Or you could try a search in the online manual for the word in question. But that too produces nothing helpful, most likely because we have no “official” policy on this word. Next you might consult a good usage book or the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary. Finding nothing anywhere, you could decide on a policy for your publication or the document you are working on, if this seems appropriate or desirable.

Q:  Several questions about the citation of abstracts in a reference list.

  • Section 3.11.9 (Abstracts and Other Material Taken From Another Source) states on page 50 that for abstracts published in the society proceedings of a journal, “the name of the society before which the paper was read need not be included” and that “if a[n abstract] number is included, it is placed in brackets along with the ‘abstract’ designation.” What is not made clear is whether including an “abstract” designation is mandatory or voluntary.   

Should an “abstract” designation be included in the citation to an abstract published in the society proceedings of a journal if neither the society’s name nor an abstract number is being provided? In other words, using example 3 of the book as a base, which of the following would be correct?  

  •  . . . Lemli-Opitz syndrome. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2001;42(suppl):S627.  (the reference is not identified as being an abstract)


  • . . . Lemli-Opitz syndrome [abstract]. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2001;42(suppl):S627.  (the reference is identified as being an abstract)

If the “[abstract]” designation is not mandatory, is it AMA style to delete it when an author includes it (without an accompanying society name or abstract number) in such a reference?

Also, if an abstract is given an abstract number in the place where it is published, is it considered mandatory or voluntary for its number to be included in the reference citation? The text in the manual says “if a number is included” but the meaning of this is possibly ambiguous (included by the journal in which it was published; or voluntarily included by the author who submits the manuscript as a matter of the submitting author’s preference? It seems most likely that it is the latter, but I’m not certain). 

A:  In order:

  • The if  is meant to signify that the designation as an abstract should be included if it is provided.
  • The second version you provided would be preferred. It’s a nice service to readers to let them know that what is referenced is an abstract.
  • Absolutely not. We would never delete it. It too provides a service to readers, helping them to find the abstract referred to, should they be so inclined.
  • You interpreted the manual correctly—the latter is what is intended.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Anticipate, Expect

Although the use of anticipate and expect as synonyms is now largely accepted,1 at least in casual communications, the careful writer will do well to note that some authorities still hold that there is a subtle difference between them.1-3

Although both words refer to a person’s attitude toward a future event, they differ in what they convey about that attitude. For example, some observers hold that the difference between the words relates to the level of certainty toward the future event (ie, anticipate implies that a person is certain that the event will take place, whereas expect implies only that a person predicts that the event will take place3). However, this weak distinction is easily blurred, and in practice it seems that it is not often upheld. A stronger and more often upheld distinction maintains that anticipate is the stronger of the two words, connoting that some action has been taken to prepare for the foreseen event.2,3 This sense possibly arose from an early (late 1500s) use, “To seize or take possession of beforehand.”4 Although that use is now obsolete, by the early 1600s anticipate was being used to suggest simply “to take action beforehand,” a meaning still current.4 Bernstein points out that such action “Need not be taken so literally as to mean the performance of an overt act; it may simply connote an advance accommodation of the mind or the senses, even involuntarily, to the coming event.”2

In any case, if anticipate suggests the taking of some sort of action to prepare for an expected event, it seems clear that one should perhaps not use it when wishing to convey only simple expectation. Interestingly enough, even those who consider anticipate and expect synonyms do not extend the same acceptance to the synonymous use of unanticipated and unexpected.1

The misuse of anticipate in place of expect likely arose from the tendency common among writers and speakers to use larger words.5(pp22-23) It also is an example of what Garner terms “slipshod extension”5(pp22-23)—“the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense.”5(pp307-308) Garner further maintains that the use of anticipate in the sense of “to await eagerly” is also incorrect and points out that such use is also likely the result of slipshod extension.5(pp22-23)

The bottom line:

● Referring to a person’s attitude toward a future event? Using anticipate and expect interchangeably is likely acceptable in casual communications, but in more formal contexts one should take care to observe the subtle differences between them.

● Referring to the simple expectation of a foreseen event? Use expect.

● Referring to a state of taking action—whether that action be either concrete, mental, or emotional—in preparation for a foreseen event? Use anticipate.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Anticipate. The Free Dictionary website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

2. Anticipate, expect. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Anticipate or Expect: What’s Next? Grammatically Correct website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

4. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991: 58.

5. Anticipate. In: Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

Right, Almost Right, and Just Plain Wrong: Spelling (and Spacing) Variations

It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant exercise in writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation; but most people remain, all their lives, imperfect masters of spelling, and liable to make mistakes, whenever they take up a pen to write a short note. Nay, many people, even of education and fashion, never attempt to write a letter, without frequently consulting a dictionary.—Noah Webster1

The primary nonmedical/nonscientific dictionary used at JAMA and the Archives Journals is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and the medical/scientific dictionary of record is Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. In the list given below, we show the preferred spelling of frequently misspelled scientific and nonscientific words as indicated by Webster’s and Dorland’s.

Whereas Webster’s shows equal or secondary variants in the entry “head,” Dorland’s uses a single term for the entry head but lists cross-references for variant spellings at the end of the entry for the preferred term. But note that Webster’s also often includes variant spellings in its entries (eg, aesthetic and esthetic). These “equal variants” are indicated by or. If they are given in alphabetical order, “they occur with equal or nearly equal frequency.” If they are given out of alphabetical order, but still joined by or, the first is slightly more common than the second. If they are joined by also, the word given second “occurs appreciably less often” than the first and is considered a “secondary variant.”

The front matter of Webster’s also notes: “Other spelling variants may be flagged with var with some further brief explanation, for example, metre … chiefly Brit var of meter.” Exception: Variant spellings that appear in direct, written (eg, published) quotations should not be changed to US variants.

To maintain consistency within their journals, the editors of JAMA and the Archives Journals prefer the first spelling of the entry of any given word.

Right and Almost Right

acknowledgment (equal variant, out of alphabetical order: acknowledgement)

aesthetic (secondary variant: esthetic)

breastfeeding (Webster’s: breast-feeding)

cutoff (as noun or adjective)

cut off (as verb)

distention (as given in Dorland’s; equal variant in Webster’s: distension)

judgment (equal variant, out of alphabetical order: judgement)

phosphorus (as noun)

phosphorous (as adjective)

sulfur (secondary variant: sulphur)

supersede (secondary variant: supercede)

Just Plain Wrong

accommodate (not accomodate)

ancillary (not ancilary)

arrhythmia (not arhythmia)

brussels sprouts (not brussel sprouts)

cholecystectomy (not cholecysectomy)

consensus (not concensus)

cribriform (not cribiform)

desiccate (not dessicate)

diphtheria (not diptheria)

dyspnea (not dysnea)

embarrass (not embarass)

erythematosus (not erythematosis)

Escherichia (not Echerichia)

fluorescent (not florescent)

fluorouracil (not flourouracil)

Haemophilus (not Hemophilus)

harass (not harrass)

hematopoietic (not hematopoetic)

Legionella pneumophila (not Legionella pneumophilia)

levothyroxine (not levothyroxin)

millennium (not millenium)

minuscule (not miniscule)

Neisseria gonorrhoeae (not Neisseria gonorrhea)

ophthalmology (not opthalmology)

Papanicolaou (not Papanicolou)

pertussis (not pertussus)

pruritus (not pruritis)

sagittal (not saggital)

sinusitis (not sinusitus)

sphygmomanometer (not sphygomamometer)

sulfide (not sulphide)

syphilis (not syphillis)

unwieldy (not unwieldly)

Now, this is nice and neat. But what if the 2 principal dictionaries (medical and nonmedical) differ on the preferred spelling of a word? Which to follow? We make such decisions on a case-by-case basis. For example, anti-inflammatory in Webster’s was chosen instead of antiinflammatory in Dorland’s because the former was considered to be expressed more clearly with a hyphen between the 2 i’s. Similarly, workup (as a noun, meaning a thorough evaluation to arrive at a diagnosis) was chosen over work-up. (But: Use work up as a verb!)

Spacing and punctuation (to hyphenate or not to hyphenate) add further questions of variation. These too are decided on a case-by-case basis. Below is a small sample of some of these decisions.

cost-effective, cost-effectiveness (not cost effective, cost effectiveness)

end point (not endpoint)

health care (not healthcare)

policy maker (not policymaker)

under way (not underway)

A final word to the wise: Until spell-checkers include a read-my-mind function, do not rely on them for solving spelling problems!—Roxanne K. Young, ELS

1. Webster N. An essay on the necessity, advantages, and practicality of reforming the mode of spelling and of rendering the orthography of words correspondent to pronunciation. In: Dissertations on the English Language: With Notes, Historical and Critical, to Which Is Added, by Way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, With Dr. Franklin’s Arguments on That Subject. Boston, MA: 1789.

Bucking the “Trend” and Approaching “Approaching Significance”

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.

—Dan Quayle

In general usage, the concept of trend implies movement. Not only is this implied in its definitions, but the word can be traced to its Middle High German root of trendel, which is a disk or spinning top.1

In scientific writing, when is a trend not a trend? When it is not referring to comparisons of findings across an ordered series of categories or across periods of time. However, this and related terms are often misused in manuscripts and articles.

Most studies are constructed as hypothesis testing. Because an individual study only provides a point estimate of the truth, the researchers must determine before conducting the study an acceptable cutoff for the probability that a finding of an association is due to chance (the α value, most commonly but not universally set at .05 in clinical studies). This creates a dichotomous situation in interpreting the result: the study either does or does not meet this criterion. If the criterion is met, the finding is described as “statistically significant”; if it is not met, the finding is described as “not statistically significant.”

There are many limitations to this approach. Where the α level is set is arbitrary; therefore, in general all findings should be expressed as the study’s point estimate and confidence interval, rather than just the study estimate and the P value. Despite the limitations, if a researcher designs a study on the basis of hypothesis testing, it is not appropriate to change the rules after the results are available, and the results should be interpreted accordingly. The entire study design (such as calculation of the sample size and study power – the ability of a study to detect an actual difference or effect, if one truly exists) is dependent on setting the rules in advance and adhering to them.

If a study does not meet the significance criterion (for example, if the α level was set as < .05, and the P value for the finding was .08), authors sometimes describe the findings as “trending toward significance,” “having a trend toward significance,” “approaching significance,” “borderline significant,” or “nearly significant.” None of these terms is correct. Results do not trend toward significant—they either are or are not statistically significant based on the prespecified study assumptions. Similarly, the results do not include any movement and so cannot “approach” significance; and because of the dichotomous definition, “nearly significant” is no more meaningful than “nearly pregnant.”

When a finding does not meet statistical significance, there are generally 2 possible explanations: (1) There is no real association. (2) There might be an association, but the study was underpowered to detect it, usually because there were not enough participants or outcome events. A finding that does not meet statistical significance may still be clinically important and warrant further consideration.

However, when authors use terms such as trend or approaching significance, they are hedging the interpretation. In effect, they are treating the findings as if the association were statistically significant, or as if it might have been if the study had just gone a little differently. This is not justified. (Lang and Secic2 make the fascinating observation that “Curiously, P values never seem to ‘trend’ away from significance.”)

A proper use of the term trend refers to the results of one of the specific statistical tests for trend, the purpose of which is to estimate the likelihood that differences across 3 or more groups move (increase or decrease) in a meaningful direction more than would be expected by chance. For example, if a population of persons is ranked by evenly divided quintiles based on serum cholesterol level (from lowest to highest), and the risk of subsequent myocardial infarction is measured in each group, the researcher may want to determine whether risk increases in a linear way across the groups. Statistical tests that might be used for analyzing trends include the χ2 test for trend and the Cochran-Armitage test.

Similarly, a researcher may want to test for a directional movement in the values of data over time, such as a month-to-month decrease in prescriptions of a medication following publication of an article describing major adverse effects. A number of analytic approaches can be used for this, including time series and other regression models.

Instead of using these terms, the options are:

1. Delete the reported finding if it is not clinically important or a primary outcome. OR

2. Report the finding with its P value. Describe the result as “not statistically significant,” or “a statistically nonsignificant reduction/increase,” and provide the confidence interval so that the reader can judge whether insufficient power is a likely reason for the lack of statistical significance.

If the finding is considered clinically important, authors should discuss why they believe the results did not achieve statistical significance and provide support for this argument (for example, explaining how the study was underpowered). However, this type of discussion is an interpretation of the finding and should take place in the “Discussion” (or “Comment”) section, not in the “Results” section.

Bottom line:

1. The term trend should only be used when reporting the results of statistical tests for trend.

2. Other uses of trend or approaching significance should be removed and replaced with a simple statement of the findings and the phrase not statistically significant (or the equivalent). Confidence intervals, along with point estimates, should be provided whenever possible.—Robert M. Golub, MD

1. Mish FC, ed in chief. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

2. Lang TA, Secic M. How to Report Statistics in Medicine: Annotated Guidelines for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: American College of Physicans; 2006:56, 58.


Apt, Liable, Likely

Although these words are sometimes used interchangeably, particularly in infinitive constructions (apt to fall, liable to fall, likely to fall),1,2 using them interchangeably obscures subtle yet important distinctions between them.

Of the three, it seems that apt is the one most often used in its proper sense—perhaps because, unlike liable and likely, which both stress a potential consequence and thus are often confused, apt simply stresses inherent tendency (eg, “Elmer is apt to be a bit unsteady on his feet”).3 Also, whereas liable and likely refer to consequences and thus most commonly to conditions that will become manifest in the future, apt usually refers to conditions manifest in the past or present.1 In addition, some authorities hold that apt is perhaps most commonly used when referring to persons, although it can refer to nonhuman or inanimate subjects as well.1

So far so good—but, as alluded to above, tossing liable and likely into the mix can muddy the waters a bit. Both stress degrees of potential, but liable is the weaker of the two, used to stress possibility (eg, “Because Elmer is apt to be a bit unsteady on his feet, he’s liable to fall”) rather than outright probability.1 It has sometimes been held that liable should be used only when the subject of the sentence would face unpleasant consequences from the action expressed by the verb (“Because Elmer is apt to be a bit unsteady on his feet, he’s liable to fall and break a hip”).2 Certainly, of the three words under discussion, liable is the one most often taken as indicating that a consequence might be unpleasant or disadvantageous.3

Compared with liable, likely is a stronger term, used to stress probability (eg, “Because Elmer is apt to be a bit unsteady on his feet, he’ll likely fall if the steps are icy”) rather than mere possibility.1 However, unlike apt, likely used alone stresses no particular tendency in the subject that would enhance the probability of the outcome; moreover, unlike liable, it need not suggest the potential for an unpleasant consequence (eg, “Although Elmer is apt to be a bit unsteady on his feet, he’ll likely not fall, even if the steps are icy”).2

The bottom line:

● Looking for a word that stresses inherent tendency, particularly in a person? Use apt.

● Looking for a word that stresses possibility (as opposed to probability)—especially the possibility of some unpleasant consequence? Use liable.

● Looking for a word that stresses probability (as opposed to possibility), whether the perceived consequences be good or ill? Use likely.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Apt, liable, likely. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 1984:56.

2. Liable. website. Accessed March 8, 2012.

3. Apt, liable, likely. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:48.

Acronym Morph: What’s an Editor to Do?

Sometimes we see things out of the corner of our eye. Then we think, “Did I really see that?” Lately, I’ve had that experience with certain acronyms morphing from all capital letters (eg, UNESCO) to initial capital letters (Unesco).

When acronyms drop their periods, I take it in without a second thought—it looks cleaner to me, someone used to the omission of periods in most acronyms from years of editing using the AMA Manual of Style. But this move from all-caps to only an initial cap jarred me, once I stopped and looked it in the eye. I was puzzled, too, by the pattern (or lack of one) behind this shift.

A little investigation seemed in order. The AMA Manual of Style distinguishes between acronyms and initialisms1 and indicates that periods are usually not used with them. But there is no mention of an all-cap or initial-cap style or preference. The Chicago Manual of Style2 notes that “Usage rather than logic determines whether abbreviations other than those standing for proper names are given in upper- or lowercase letters. Noun forms are usually uppercase (HIV, VP), adverbial forms lowercase (rpm, mpg). Note also that acronyms, especially those of five or more letters, tend to become lowercase with frequent use (NAFTA/Nafta, WASP/Wasp).” Special mention of this morph is made in discussing associations and the like: “Whether acronyms or initialisms…, such abbreviations appear in full capitals and without periods. Acronyms of five letters or more may be spelled with only an initial capital….” Chicago cites ERISA/Erisa (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) as an example.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe there isn’t logic but maybe there is a pattern. Editors like both.

The Associated Press Stylebook3 advises, with regard to acronyms, “Use only an initial cap and then lowercase for acronyms of more than six letters, unless listed otherwise in this Stylebook or Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” So, it does seem to be related to length. How long is long enough to trigger this style change—5 letters? 6 letters?

This set me to thinking about things that began as acronyms and then morphed even further than becoming “proper nouns,” with an initial cap, to becoming “regular” words, all lowercase, as if they had never worn the guise of an acronym at all. The first such word that came to my mind was posh because I loved knowing that this word began as P.O.S.H. to stand for “port out, starboard home,” the location of the most expensive berths on luxury liners. However, I was chagrined to read in The Phrase Finder4 that this story was probably “dreamed up retrospectively to match an existing meaning.” It therefore is not an acronym but a backronym (a “reverse acronym,” a word or phrase constructed after the fact to make an existing word or words into an acronym”5).

What are other such words that we use as if they were fresh words but that began life as acronyms? I knew about snafu (“situation normal, all f—ed up”), which is so often used that most people don’t even know it had an earlier existence. Another one that, for some reason, I think most people do realize used to stand for something is scuba (“self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”). One that I see every day in reading medical journals that I hadn’t known started as an acronym is laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). Wonderful. Finding out the history of each of these acronyms is like opening a small treasure chest. Then there’s a host of others that all joined the language in the 1980s: yuppie (“young urban professional” or “young upwardly mobile professional”), buppie (“black urban professional”), guppie (“gay urban professional”), dink (“double income, no kids”). This is fun.

Some acronyms come from other languages: flak (from German: Fliegerabwehrkanonen, from Flieger flyer + Abwehr defense + Kanonen cannons).6 Some company names began as acronyms: Qantas began as QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services).

Getting back to the yen for logic and a pattern, with words there is a pattern that editors often chart, like physicians charting a patient’s temperature in a hospital record…watching to see when the temperature is right for them to jump in. Here the pattern is to begin with 2 separate words, then link them with a hyphen, then join them completely.

breast feeding→breast-feeding→breastfeeding

With acronyms it seems to be


With, sometimes, a brief detour to unesco.

For those of us who care about these details, we each need to decide (with words, with capital letters) when—watching the temperature—it’s time to jump in. For medical journals, vis-à-vis this acronym morph, we are going to continue to monitor the temperature before deciding to jump in for a swim.

Acronyms, backronyms. Words take us on a wonderful journey. Sometimes they are a journey in themselves.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

1. Iverson C, Flanagin A, Christiansen S, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:441-442.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2003:559.

3. Christian D, Jacobsen S, Minthorn D, eds. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Basic Books; 2009:2.

4. POSH. The Phrase Finder. Accessed June 4, 2012.

5. Backronym. Wikipedia. Accessed June 4, 2012.

6. Mish FC, ed in chief. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:475.

Ambiguous, Equivocal

These words often are taken to mean the same thing—which in some contexts they indeed do. When used to refer to test results or experimental findings, for example, both words are properly used to indicate uncertainty, ie, that the findings can be understood in more than one way.

However, a distinction comes to bear when one is referring to statements, either written or oral. Although both words also can properly be used when referring to a statement subject to more than one interpretation, accepted usage holds that ambiguous is the proper choice if the resulting uncertainty seems unintentional1(p39) and that equivocal is the way to go if the uncertainty seems to have been intentionally introduced to confuse or deceive.1(p423) The deceptive intent is key, and it is worth noting that whereas the verb equivocate is an accepted word, ambiguate is not.

Deceptive intent might be inferred from the immediate context of surrounding statements. Often, however, intent is inferred from the larger context, ie, the history of the issue under discussion or the (perceived) character of the person making the statement. Given the latter means of inference, it is not surprising that the use of equivocal to refer to deceptive statements has been accepted since the late 1700s—about the time that the word also came to be commonly used to describe persons believed “[d]oubtful in character or reputation; liable to unfavorable comment or description; questionable; suspicious.”2(p527) Equivocal is still occasionally used when referring to such persons, but current usage, particularly in the social media, tends to favor terms somewhat more colorful.

Equivocal also can imply that a person has used ambiguous language in a qualifying way to avoid personal commitment to the statement made.1(p423) This meaning, however, although a bit more neutral than the meaning already noted, still hints at something less than savory. In short, although using ambiguous and equivocal interchangeably to describe a statement will be correct in some instances, writers tempted to use equivocal in place of ambiguous would do well to remember that the former has additional connotations often freighted with “nasty overtones.”3

Perhaps because clarity and certainty are seldom used for deceptive purposes, matters are less complicated in negative constructions: unambiguous and unequivocal both indicate that a test result or a statement has only one interpretation. However, because equivocal carries negative connotations, unequivocal is often used to emphasize a lack of deceptive intent.

As a side note, another word, unequivocable, has been used interchangeably with unequivocal since the early 1900s.2(p2166) How this monster came to be is a matter of some conjecture, but it likely arose either from innocent confusion over the proper spelling and pronunciation of equivocal or from a desire to use a loftier-sounding word (although it is difficult to imagine an instance in which unequivocal would not be lofty enough). In any case, unequivocable and its variants are often considered nonstandard.1(p1366)

The bottom line:

● Referring to test results or experimental findings having more than one interpretation? Ambiguous and equivocal are both correct, but it is worth noting that the latter can have negative overtones and is perhaps best avoided unless the reporting of results seems intentionally unclear.

● Referring to a statement having more than one interpretation? Remember that all equivocal statements are ambiguous, but not all ambiguous statements are equivocal. If the statement seems intentionally unclear with the goal of distancing or deceiving, use equivocal.

Unambiguous and unequivocal both indicate that something has only one interpretation, although when describing a statement unequivocal is sometimes used to emphasize an absence of deceptive intent.

Unequivocable, while found in some dictionaries, is often considered nonstandard and should probably be avoided.—Phil Sefton, ELS

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

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

3. Ambiguous, equivocal. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:38.

A Few Thoughts on Fewer and Less

All of the usual English-language usage books seem so sure that they give little more than a compound sentence to explain that fewer should be used when referencing things that can be counted and less when referencing quantity or things that can be measured.

The AMA Manual of Style1 points out that the 2 words “are not interchangeable.” Then explains the difference by advising readers to “[use] fewer for number (individual persons or things) and less for volume or mass (indicating degree or value).” It offers the following examples: “Fewer interventions may not always mean less care” and “The authors evaluated fewer than 100 studies yet still reported more support for the conventionally prescribed therapy.” The entry is followed by a note that provides 2 more examples including parenthetical explanations:

spent less than $1000 (not: spent fewer than $1000)

reported fewer data (not: reported less data)

The Associated Press Stylebook2 entry says, “In general, use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity” and provides the following examples, or should I say commands:

Wrong: The trend is toward more machines and less people. (People in this sense refers to individuals.)

Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (Years in this sense refers to a period of time, not individual years.)

Right: Fewer than 10 applicants called. (Individuals.)

Right: I had less than $50 in my pocket. (An amount.) but: I had fewer than 50 $1 bills in my pocket. (Individual items.)

The Elements of Style3 elliptically warns, “Less should not be misused for fewer” with the following explanation. “Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. ‘His troubles are less than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so great as mine.’ ‘His troubles are fewer than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so numerous as mine.’”

A Writer’s Reference,4 a college handbook, is equally economical: “Fewer refers to items that can be counted; less refers to items that cannot be counted” followed by its example for usage: “Fewer people are living in the city” and “Please put less sugar in my tea.” (I’d rather that you didn’t put any sugar in my tea.)

But if the rule were so easy as these commonly used English-language usage references suggest, why are people confused?

If anything is certain about language, it is that nothing is certain: a truism that often frustrates my composition students, who simply want the answer when no one true answer exists. In the case of fewer and less, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage5 and Fowler’s Modern English Usage6 support my position by telling an entirely different story about how to use less and fewer, with Webster’s devoting 3 and a third columns to it and Fowler’s devoting about 3 columns over 2 entries.

The former launches the alternate-usage discussion with a metaphoric clearing of its throat to suggest, however, that the general usage rule cited in most English-language reference texts “has only one fault–it is not accurate for all usage” and offers a rule amendment for using less:

less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.

In other words, less can be used in both cases. Webster’s punctuates its point by saying the amended rule has actually reflected common usage for say “the past thousand years or so.” The general rule became established and embraced by most language scholars, so Webster’s theorized, from a 1770 comment about less made by Robert Baker in Reflections on the English Language. He wrote:

The word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

Thus, a modest preference has become, as Webster’s points out, “elevated to an absolute status.” That transformation, the entry laments, may be due to the reluctance of “many pedagogues … to share the often complicated facts about English with their students.” In fact, Webster’s points to the Oxford English Dictionary as showing that “less has been used as countables since the time of King Alfred the Great.”

Although Fowler’s trends toward the generally accepted usage rule, it recognizes that perhaps the “complicated facts about English” should in fact be elucidated. As a means of clarification, it uses parts of speech to explain the usage differences. It says that “few and its comparative adj. fewer are used with countable nouns, i.e. with nouns that have both a singular and a plural form (book/books)…; or with collective nouns (fewer people…)” but, “[l]ess which is a comparative of little, is properly used with uncountable or mass nouns: in other words less refers to quantity and is the opposite of more (less affection, less power, less misery).” Furthermore, Fowler’s acknowledges when less can be used “idiomatically with plural nouns … esp. distances (it is less than seventy miles to London)” and the like.

In its final example in the few entry, Fowler’s notes the “regrettable” trend of “the use of less with an unprotected plural noun.”(That’s an expression that’s new to me.) One of the example sentences of that violation is

There will be less 100% loans about.

Don’t we all know that?—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

2. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.

3. Strunk W, White EB. Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 2000.

4. Hacker D. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s; 2009.

5. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.

6. Burchfield RW. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd rev ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: A colleague and I both remember seeing in a style manual that an en dash should be used between 2 words of equal weight. However, we checked the AMA Manual of Style and saw that this was not a supported use of the en dash. Did this guideline appear in a former edition of the AMA Manual, or did we just pick this idea up from another source?

A: No, I don’t believe we have ever recommended an en dash between 2 words of equal weight. It is the hyphen that we recommend between 2 words of equal weight. See the middle of page 346 of the 10th edition, with the examples of “blue-gray eyes” and “blue-black lesions.” We recommend use of the en dash when the items on either side are not of equal weight (eg, one element consists of 2 words or a hyphenated word or a compound). There are examples at the bottom of page 352 and the top of page 353.

Q: Is it appropriate to abbreviate echocardiography as ECHO or echo in documents that describe the use of echocardiography during the treatment of various types of cancer?

A: We would be unlikely to abbreviate echocardiography (or any related term, such as echocardiogram) to ECHO or echo. We would spell this term out. Only in cases in which there are serious space constraints would we consider abbreviating this term (eg, in a large table), and then we would recommend expanding the abbreviation in a table footnote.

Q: Do you use Web site or website? Traditionally it has always been “Web site,” but in the past few years I have noticed a change to the more informal “website” in many publications. What is your recommendation?

A: On the home page of the AMA Manual, in the navigation bar, there’s a listing for “Updates.” If you take a look there, you’ll see that a relatively recent update (January 18, 2012) indicates that, as of that date, we began to prefer website to Web site.  Check “Updates” periodically to see if there are other, newer updates on material in the manual.

Q: I have a style question I cannot find addressed in your manual. On a manuscript I plan to submit to a journal, the corresponding author has moved since the manuscript was written and this author wants to indicate both her current and her former affiliation. Can you advise on how to phrase this information?

A: The answer to your question is in section 2.3.3 of the manual. See the relevant excerpt below:

The affiliation listed, including departmental affiliation if appropriate, should reflect the author’s institutional affiliation at the time the work was done. If the author has since moved, the current affiliation also should be provided.

Author Affiliations: Department of Health Policy and Management, The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland. Dr Lloyd is now with the Department of Emergency Medicine, St Luke’s Hospital, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Cheryl Iverson, MA