Grammatical Errors Mark Medical Discussions

Much grammar and word usage to consider in current medical stories in the mediaBetween ebola and the enterovirus, there’s a lot of medical-related discussion on current news reports. These three grammatical errors — a compound modifier and two redundancies — caught my eye and ear within about a 20-minute time span this morning.

Here’s the first error, which appeared in writing:

Sure, Duncan’s family was quarantined in an apartment with possibly-infected sheets. (Washington Post)

We create compound modifiers by using hyphens:

  • little-known man (not little known man, which could imply the guy was not very tall, but he was known by many)
  • high-flying acrobat (not high flying acrobat, which could imply that the acrobat was high on substances, not just performing at great heights)

However, there are cases where we can safely assume that a term is a compound modifier and doesn’t need a hyphen. Words ending in ly fall into that category: possibly infected sheets, usually accessible manager, capably delivered speech.

Here’s the second grammatical error:

We should see these numbers dwindle down in October.

This comment was from television news. Did the reporter say “dwindle down” so we wouldn’t misunderstand that the numbers might “dwindle up”? Dwindle means to diminish, so adding down is redundant.

We all know that speaking can lead to more errors than writing, where we have a chance to review and edit our work. Yet I have different expectations of highly paid (no hyphen in this ly compound modifier) television news reporters and commentators.

Here’s the third grammatical error — again, a redundancy, and one that I have written about before:

Everyone doesn’t have the exact same symptoms.

I would ask the physician who made this statement: Is there a difference between the exact symptoms, the same symptoms, and the exact same symptoms? Not in my understanding of the meanings of exact and same.

I consider all of these relatively simple, straightforward errors. No one is perfect, but when you are a paid communicator or are considered an expert in the eye of the public, it can be wise to try to give extra thought to how you express yourself.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)