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Sick English
The term "patient"
Enigmatic Semicolon
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  Q: How do you investigate a topic?
A: For a clinical term I begin outside the medical setting and determine if and how the same term is used in nonclinical domains, including scientific registers and informal usage. Terms are like people. You canít truly understand them unless you see them in action wherever they appear, and this includes their appearances in the past.

If a clinical term is also used in scientific and technical specialties (physics, welding, etc.), part of the investigation entails studying its meaning and use in these specialties too. (For instance, susceptibility is used in a number of technical fields.) I also consult experts for additional insight into the real-life things and situations to which the term applies. Much of the information they provide isnít found in reference books. Experts can tell you, for instance, whether a term is becoming old-fashioned (on the way out), and how practitioners in the field feel about certain terms (connotations) Itís one thing to consult a physics dictionary and quite another to consult a living physicist.

Q: Why do you deal mostly with terminology?
A: Because terms (related to issues of nomenclature and classification) pose the biggest challenge in medical communication, especially because of historical change in the language. However, Iím broadening the scope to include morphology and syntax (e.g. use of the receding subjunctive mood) and even punctuation. See, for instance, the article ďIs the Semicolon Necessary?Ē on the Publications page.

Q: How does your linguistic approach differ from nonlinguistic approaches to terminological problems?
A: Consider what happens when things go wrong. If your child gets sick, you consult a pediatrician, not someone who just has an opinion about sick babies. Your cat gets sick, itís taken to the vet. The kitchen sink leaks, you call the plumber. When things go wrong, we turn to people who have knowledge of the relevant systemóthe infant body, the feline body, the pipes. Language is a system, and itís the job of linguistics to understand it.

However, linguists also need nonlinguistic approaches. Remember, people were discussing and regulating language for centuries, when linguists hadnít even been born! And when linguists write, guess whose works we consult for stylistic and rhetorical guidance. Finally, every native speaker of a language has contributed to making the language what it is. Thus when we speak of ďlanguage change,Ē language is best understood as the object of change. English is what it is because of how millions of people have used it.