Linguistic Teaser

About Medical Linguistics Consulting

Tracking language changes that affect medical English usage

About Us

Medical Linguistics Consulting is headed by Janet Byron Anderson PhD, a professionally trained linguist. Besides writing on medical language issues, she is a medical editor and consultant to researchers, agencies, and publishers (see Services). Medical Linguistics Consulting was formed to meet your need for an approach to medical usage which acknowledges that speakers are constantly changing the English language. The expression, “Language constantly changes”, is therefore misleading, for it suggests that language has a mind of its own and makes decisions without consulting us. Not true.

Language changes when we decide to change it

When speakers introduce new words, the rest of us struggle to deal with the innovations. The result is that terms seem to jostle for turf. Meanings overlap: “incidence” vs. “prevalence”. Variants compete: “Golgi apparatus”, “Golgi complex”, “Golgi body”, “Golgi”; “neurologic” vs. “neurological”.

We can’t negotiate a satisfactory resolution of such conflicts without knowing the terrain on which they’re played out. This terrain comprises the histories of the problematic terms—not only their past history but also their probable future history; i.e. drift, direction—together with the complexities of current usage.

Like us, a language has two histories. Its past shows what it used to be.

Its future (drift) represents the probable direction of change, given the past and present features of the language.

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For example, you’ve seen or heard both “neurologic” and “neurological”, and similar pairs and wondered, Why are these pairs flourishing? When you survey the broad spectra of modern learned discourse, you’ll see more occurrences of –ic rather than –ical. The suffix –ic is now the preferred suffix for modern scientific terms, and this drift will continue. So what keeps –ical alive? It turns out that –ical is essential in forming adverbs: “neurolog-ical-ly”, etc. And although pronunciation of the adverb is contracted—we actually say “neurologicly”—we can’t spell the adverbs that way. Even the newest adjectives ending in –ic require –ical to form adverbs.


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