Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Syllabi or Syllabuses?

It's that season again! You know, when we dust off that syllabus and take a look at it to see if it's needs any tweaking. That, or just change the date and call it done. We may even have a few syllabuses to tend. Wait! What?! Syllabuses? Shouldn't that be syllabi?


Well, it's true that I often get things wrong. But not this time.

Actually, I didn't know until recently that in English, the correct plural form of syllabus is syllabuses

And syllabi. Either one is correct. 

I don't know if I've ever heard anyone actually say syllabuses, except me. And I've only recently started using it because I've been thinking about it. Soon, I'll be calling them Course Guides because that just now popped into my head—so I'll be thinking of that instead. And, as much as I like the classics (Latin and Greek), I think Course Guide works better and is more student friendly because it's plainly spoken. But I digress.

Maybe before reading this, you hadn't heard syllabuses used much, either.

It turns out that the English word syllabus was coined way back in 1650 from a modern Latin word that was itself formed sort of by mistake, by several misreadings and misinterpretations of some similar sounding Greek words. One of those Greek words is a form—síttybās—that refers to papyrus rolls.

scroll in a glass library case

I'm thinking my course syllabuses are getting so long, especially with recent mandatory disclaimers and public health instructions sent down to me from the ivory-tower folks, they maybe would be best printed out on papyrus scrolls.

Once the word syllabus appeared in Latin, it then took on a Latin plural form syllabi. But remember we're speaking English, not Latin. It's true that in academia in general, and the life sciences in particular, we like to use the Latin plural forms. But when it comes right down to it, we're still speaking English, right? So it's syllabi if you want to preserve the Latin flavor—and who doesn't? But it's also perfectly fine to use syllabuses as the plural form. Both are okay. Really.

I'll probably go back to using syllabi—if I end up abandoning my idea of using Course Guide. But I'm going to keep syllabuses in my pocket to use if I ever need to create a distraction (or keep myself awake) at an academic committee meeting.

Want some tips for taming your syllabuses, er, course guides? Check out The Syllabus Special episode of The A&P Professor podcast.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is it Mamillary or Mammillary?

There are two acceptable spellings of this term that can be used to name a pair of hypothalamic nuclei in the brain (see the illustration below) and other structures that resemble a small human female breast:
mam(m)- breast, -ill(a)- little,-ary relating to

Originally, it was mamillary from the Latin spelling of the term mamillaris. The variant mammillary arose because of the close association with the related English term mammary (relating to the breast).

Both spellings are widely used. In my textbook Anatomy & Physiology, I chose the former spelling (the "single m"). Mamillary is used in ICD-9 medical coding and in many medical textbooks) because it more closely follows the Latin word from which it is derived, mamillaris. As many of my readers have noticed, the parsing of Latin roots is a theme in our textbook that is not found in most other anatomy and physiology textbooks, so it makes sense that we'd go in this direction, given a choice of two acceptable spellings.

This brings up the interesting and important phenomenon that applies to both spelling and pronunciation: there are sometimes several acceptable alternates but we often assume that the way we learned it (or the way it appears in the teaching resources we use) is the only correct option.

Check out Mamillary or Mammillary? What's in an “m”?

It turns out that our learning of scientific and medical terminology is never complete and so we should always double-check misspellings (and mispronunciations) in case they turn out to be correct (even if odd) alternates with which we are not yet familiar.

You may also be interested in a previous post on variations in pronunciation of anatomical terms:

Graphic from Anatomography

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Meatus | Weird Word

The term meatus is a weird one. The plural form is not what you might think if you've never heard it before.
meatus passage or channel
In anatomy, the term meatus refers to a passageway or opening into (or through) a tube.

Meatus is a noun derived from the Latin verb meare, which means "to pass."

For example, the term external acoustic meatus refers to the tubelike opening in the temporal bone that allows passage of the tubelike canal of the external ear bearing the same name.

There are many examples of meatus throughout the body.

What?! Was that a typo? Did I just mean to state, "examples of meatus throughout the body."? Yes. Yes, I did.

Considering the many nouns in science and medicine that end in -us and are pluralized by changing the -us to -i, one would think that the proper plural form of meatus is meati. Nope.

The term meatus is a weird one, remember? It's proper plural form is either meatus or meatuses.

Why the weirdness?

The plural form meatus comes from the fact that it in Latin, it belongs to the fourth declension class of nouns—and as such, meatus is the proper plural form in Latin.

The plural form meatuses adopts the English form of pluralization, which happens frequently when Latin terms are imported into English.

The combining form of meatus is meato-, as in meatoscope (for looking into the urinary meatus).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Modern Use of Eponyms

I love eponyms!

I'm a bit sad that eponyms—terms that include a proper name—are going out of style in the world of human sciences, it seems.

Paul Langerhans
The international lists of anatomic terminology recommend against most eponyms, providing descriptive terms in their place.  For example, pancreatic islet is the term  preferred to the eponym islet of Langerhans.  Osteon is preferred over haversian system.

Of course, I get that.  Descriptive terms are more intuitive and therefore easier to understand, learn, and remember. Related to that is that they are more accurate when it comes to medical applications.  And I'm all about accuracy in the medical professions.

It's just kind of fun using eponyms.  And kind of sad to feel like I am leaving behind all those wonderful women and men who discovered our parts way back when.

But it's not just the international lists of anatomy that are leaving eponyms behind—all the "authorities," including most medical textbooks are doing it. Professional societies, associations, and boards in the basic sciences and the health professions are doing it.  So if we want to be "in style" with our terminology—and more importantly, make sure our students are sporting the latest linguistic style—we'd better pay attention to the trends, eh?

Let me give you some unasked-for fashion tips if you want to be stylish in your use of professional terminology:

Avoid eponyms

If there's an accepted descriptive term, it's best to use that rather than the eponym.

Be bilingual

Some folks you'll encounter are old-fashioned or possibly don't know the newer descriptive term.  Or they know both and use them interchangeably.  Because we're on the cusp of a fashion revolution here, the most competent professionals will know both and be able to switch back and forth easily as the context requires. The goal is to understand and be understood, right?

What to do if you have to use an eponym

Then use an eponym! There are some commonly used terms for which there really isn't a great descriptive term to replace an eponym.  For example, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, and other disorders often don't have a widely accepted alternative. So absolute avoidance of eponyms is not (yet) possible.

Fashionable uses of eponyms

If you must use an eponym, the trendy folks at AMA and elsewhere avoid the use of possessive forms.  For example, notice how I used the term Parkinson disease above and not Parkinson's disease?  It's better to use Down syndrome than Down's syndrome—and even better to use trisomy 21 syndrome.

Likewise, the possessive loop of Henle is out of favor but using Henle loop may still get you into most of the trendy clubs.

Illusory eponym styles

When you try to get away with using a possessive form of an eponym and yet still avoid arrest by the fashion police, you have to be very cunning.  Here's a common way that's done: use the adjective form of a proper name.  So if you want to honor Gabriele Falloppio's work in describing uterine tubes, then use his Latinized name (Fallopius) in the form of an adjective and call them Fallopian tubes.

Gabriele Falloppio
But, you may say, that's not a very clever masking of the fact that it's an eponym. In fact, it's pretty obvious, right?  Well here's the sly part: cover it up by using a lowercase letter—thus obscuring the fact that it incorporates a proper noun. That's why many sources use fallopian tube instead of Fallopian tube.

Terms like eustachian tube and haversian canal may not seem like well-hidden eponyms in our context here, where we're actually focusing on eponyms. But most grand stage illusions—like Blackstone's making an elephant appear on stage from thin air—rely on such subtle misdirection.

So when you are using an adjective form of an eponym, it's best not to capitalize it and risk possible arrest by the fashion police.

Fashion rules are not really rules

With any fashion, the "rules" are not usually rules in the formal sense.  They are simple formulations of trends that, if heeded, will likely save you some embarrassment when you don't appear to be cool.  So if you have a good reason—or even a lame reason—to ignore these rules, I think you'll probably survive. People laugh (even hoot) at my disregard for current clothing fashion all the time—you get used to it.

OK, sometimes fashion rules really are rules

As with any professional communication, sometimes fashion rules get set in stone in a required style to which you must adhere in your work.  Sort of like a dress code for words. For example, students learn how to use professional styles when we require that they submit their assignments in APA, Chicago, or CBE style. Likewise, in publishing journal articles, books, and other works, there are rules established that provide consistency—and, therefore, also accuracy.  Each publisher, sometimes each journal or textbook, has it's own house style that defines such things. So if your journal editor insists on Eustachian tube instead of auditory tube or eustachian tube, then I recommend doing it.  Retro, in some contexts, can be cool.

Adapted from The A&P Professor

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Say It Out Loud 18 Times

Want to learn your terminology quickly and easily?  In a recent post, I told you that one way to do that is to work on six new words every day.  My friend Jane, the foreign language professor, gave me another tip to help learn new terminology: say each new term out loud at least 18 times.

Apparently, there's evidence suggesting that to "own" a new word, you have to say it out loud at least 18 times.  The vocalization, along with the repetition, apparently help to reinforce memories in the various language areas in your brain.  Which means that you can recall and use the terms easily.

I know that seems silly . . . even childish.  But think about it.  Silly as it may seem, isn't it worth reducing your study time and improving your knowledge quickly?

Adapted from a post at The A&P Student

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Is an Eponym?

In professional terminology, an eponym is a term that is based upon a proper name.
epo- upon, -nym name
For example, the term Parkinson disease is a term that includes the proper name of the physician James Parkinson, who is credited with first describing the condition in detail. Another example is the loop of Henle, which is a kidney tubule segment named after the German anatomist who discovered it—Friedrich Henle.

As these examples imply, eponyms are often based on the name of the discoverer of the condition, process, or structure represented by the term.

But sometimes, eponyms are instead based on the name of a patient with the condition represented.  For example, the Duffy blood group was named for the first patient in which this antigen was identified.  I guess that was before HIPAA and its strict restrictions on revealing patient names!

Similarly, Legionnaires disease was named after the participants in an American Legion convention where an early outbreak of the condition occurred.

The wonderful thing about eponyms is that they get us thinking about the history of medical science—who the important characters were and how discoveries were made.  But the downside of eponyms is that history and fascinating stories are not very useful in the moment we need to use them.

Paul Broca
Because eponyms are terms that tend to obscure, rather than clarify, their practical meaning, they are falling out of favor.  Eponyms are giving way to descriptive terms that more clearly summarize their working definitions. For example, it is far more useful to call a brain region the motor speech area than the Broca area.  The former tells one both its location in the brain (the motor area of the cerebral cortex) and its function. The latter tells you who first described it—a brilliant guy with massive sideburns—which is interesting but not immediately useful.

In health professions, how accurately we communicate is important.  Why? Because even a subtle miscommunication can result in a tragic mistake in providing needed care to patients. So in the end, the shift away from eponyms and toward more descriptive terminology may actually save lives!

In an upcoming post, we'll explore eponyms a bit by focusing on the shift in preferences in eponym usage.  And, as we march on, I'll be telling some of the odd and interesting stories behind the eponyms.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Six New Terms a Day

As you begin (or continue) your study of terminology, you will likely feel a bit overwhelmed with the flood of new words.  Or a lot overwhelmed with all the new terms.

However, it need not be as big a struggle as you might first think.  There are some tricks and shortcuts . . . and I'm here to let you in on a few of those.

Today's tip comes from my friend Jane, who is a very talented professor of foreign language.  She told me that research as shown that most people can easily learn five to seven new words a day.  That is, if you work at it, you can add about six new words to your vocabulary each day without too much trouble.

That doesn't seem like a lot, but if you spend a few minutes a day you can easily pick up about 45 new terms a week.  That's over 700 new terms in a semester!

But of course, the trick is to put a little bit of effort into every single day.  Simply make yourself six or seven new flash cards, each with a new term, every day.  Review them for  just a few minutes, but do that several times throughout the day.

Don't forget to spend a few minutes reviewing your cards from the days before . . . you don't want to forget those new terms.

If you make this a habit, then you'll find that those few minutes a day can really make a huge difference in your mastery of the terminology you need.

Adapted from a post at The A&P Student

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Pleasure of Learning New Words

Recent research shows that learning new words triggers the reward circuits of our brain—making it a pleasure to learn and study terminology.  Like you didn't already know that!

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers have experimentally proved that human adult word learning exhibits activation not only of language regions of the cerebral cortex, but also of the ventral striatum (VS)—a core region of reward processing.

Results confirm that the motivation to learn new words is preserved throughout the lifespan, helping infants learn their first language and adults to acquire a second language.

Want to know more?

The Role of Reward in Word Learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition
  • P Ripollés, et al. Current Biology. 3 November 2014. Vol 24. Issue 21. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.044
  • Original research article.
  • my-ap.us/1Dzod24

Learning a new word stimulates the same region of the brain as sex
  • F. MacDonald  Science Alert. 29 OCT 2014
  • Plain English summary of the research.
  • my-ap.us/1ALmipP

Photo: adapted from Landesbibliotek
Some content adapted from a press release.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Learning Terminology for Beginners

Here's a brief introduction to learning the new terminology of  a medical, clinical, or human science course. As you might guess, learning the terminology of such a course is the necessary first step that leads to understanding of the core concepts.

This is a brief video that I made to help beginning learners understand the terminology of human anatomy and physiology (A&P)—but the principles apply to any use of medical and anatomical terminology.

This introductory presentation explains the basic principle of word parts and how they are combined to produce a term.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How Do You Pronounce It?

One of the trickiest parts of using professional terminology is getting the pronunciation down. There are at least two reasons pronunciation is important:
  1. You want to be understood, right?  Using a recognizable pronunciation make it more likely that professional communications will be accurate.  And in clinical settings, accuracy can be a matter of life and death.

  2. You have to pronounce it in your head!  Even if  we do not speak a term out loud, we sort of pronounce it "in our heads" as we read or write a term.  We really need some kind of pronunciation of a term for it to become part of our brain's operating "word list."
Okay, but how does one figure out how to pronounce a term correctly?

This is the usual pattern for developing your pronunciation of a term:
  1. Learn it from someone else.  You might pick up a pronunciation from a peer, a mentor, or a learning resource—or from the media.

  2. Look it up in a dictionary. Written and audio pronunciation guides are available in the major medical dictionaries, comprehensive dictionaries, and similar resources—some of which are freely available on the web.

  3. Use common pronunciation patterns.  Each language has it's own "typical" pronunciation guidelines, some of which may not be written down.  For medical terminology, one often uses either Latin pronunciation patterns or the pattern of your native language.
But here's where it gets tricky.  For some terms, there is no "correct" pronunciation—only several possible alternate pronunciations. That's the nature of human language.  It is variable and dynamic in usage, meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.  

Dictionaries are an attempt at standardization of language, but cannot be absolutely comprehensive. Even if there was one universally accepted dictionary, it would change over time as our languages change. 

Besides the futility of an unchanging standard for pronunciation, there are regional differences related to dialect. I speak a form of midland-urban U.S. English and my wife speaks a form of southern-rural U.S English.  Which of us is "correct" in our variations of pronunciation?  Hmmm.  I suggest that it's best to call us both correct.  As long as we can understand each other accurately.

Even in Latin and Greek there are dialect differences that affect pronunciation.  I once had a colleague declare a pronunciation to be the "correct Latin pronunciation" of a term.  But that puzzles me because the earliest memory I have from my first Latin course was an explanation of the different systems of pronouncing Latin—and which one we were to use in our course.  I don't think the system we used is very common in medical circles, because I find my pronunciations of Latin terms a bit out of the mainstream on occasion.  Maybe that's what prompted my colleague to declare his version of "correct Latin pronunciation." 

I think we should make continuous, strong efforts to use "mainstream" pronunciations when using professional terminology.  For the sake of accuracy and safety in our communications, such effort is essential.  

But for many terms, we need to understand that pronunciations may legitimately differ—perhaps from regional variations or perhaps from whom one learned their Latin.  And I think we need to train our ears and our tongues to adapt to different pronunciations when we encounter them.  

I think SKEL-uh-tal muscle tissue is okay here in Missouri, but I think I'll be better understood in Calgary or Liverpool if I talk about skeh-LEE-tul muscle tissue.  

And, FYI, if you hear me say FOR-uh-men, I'm really talking about a fuh-RAY-men.  Blame my Latin teacher, if you must lay blame somewhere.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bone Names Have Meaning

Using the language of the human skeleton can be intimidating for a number of reasons.  Not the least of which is that the names of the bones and bone features seem to be very odd—sometimes almost unpronounceable.

There's a reason the names are so odd.  They're based on a foreign language!  They're all based on Latin, with a lot of Greek word parts mixed in there. Once you realize that you're using a new language as you master the details of the human skeleton, it will hopefully be a  bit less intimidating.

It turns out that if you actually focus on the fact that these are terms from a foreign language and try to translate them, then using the terminology of skeletal anatomy is far easier—and takes far less time and effort to learn—than if you ignore the meanings of bone names.

To help you get started on this road, I've produced a couple of very brief videos that outline a proven method to quickly and easily learn the bones and bone features of the human skeleton.  Watch them both to get the greatest benefit.

In the videos, I mention a couple of lists of translations (and pronunciations) that will help you engage the method I'm recommending.  Links to those lists are found below.

Want to know more?

List of bone marking types
  • Translation of each term
  • Pronunciation of each term
  • Brief description of each term
  • my-ap.us/16PNh3K

List of bones and bone markings of the human skeleton
  • Translation of each term
  • Pronunciation of each term
  • Use with your textbook or Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology (below), which has a description of each structure
  • my-ap.us/15zZYom

Field Guide to the Human Body:  Bone Names

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology
  • Many time-saving, effort-saving, and frustration-saving tips and shortcuts
  • my-ap.us/16aa5zg
Photo credit: sklmsta

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gray anatomy or grey anatomy?

When you are looking at nervous tissue, do you discuss GRAY matter or do you discuss GREY matter? or does it really matter?

Yes, it does matter. It depends on whether you are communicating in a United States (U.S.) dialect of English or a United Kingdom (U.K.) dialect of English.

Ordinarily, in U.S. English, the color is spelled GRAY.  In U.K. English, the color is usually spelled GREY.

Actually, in U.K. English, one would state, "the colour is grey" because of the color/colour difference in spelling.

But does spelling matter?  I say YES.

My reasons are spelled out in detail in the article Does Spelling Matter? at The A&P Student. In that article, I discuss the fact that in the health professions, spelling errors are a grave matter of safety. Even small differences in spelling can have unintended, tragic consequences. And that means that during the training of health professionals, we should do all we can to learn how to communicate perfectly—and thereby learn to communicate safely.

I'll get back to the importance of spelling in a subsequent article.  For now, let's focus on the idea that U.S. and U.K. English have some differences in spelling, a few of which I summarize below.

Quick points about U.S. versus U.K. spelling differences

Professional communication requires correct spelling

  • Correct spelling avoids confusion and mistakes in communication
  • In the health professions, correct spelling is therefore a safety factor

Correct spelling in English varies from region to region

  • It is best to use the spelling correct to your particular regional context

Because communication is global, we frequently encounter regional variations

  • To avoid confusion, it best to be familiar with spellings used in other regions

U.K. English is not universal outside the U.S.

  • Canada, Australia, and some other regions use a mix of U.S. and U.K. spellings
  • Even in the U.K., some have adopted selected U.S. spellings

There are exceptions to every rule

  • Specific institutions and publications sometimes adopt spelling styles not typical of their regions
  • Some disciplines and specialties have adopted their own spelling styles, regardless of region
  • Some people have accidentally picked up spellings from outside their region and therefore use a mix of regional spelling styles
  • Some U.S. spellings are commonly (and correctly) used in the U.K. and some U.K. spellings are commonly (and correctly) used in the U.S.

Be resilient

  • Language is dynamic, producing regional dialects and spelling styles—so be on the lookout for changes as your regional language evolves

Some examples of U.S. versus U.K. spelling differences

The e/ae/oe vowels

Some words in U.S. English that use the e vowel instead use the ae or oe  diphthong in U.K. English.


The -er/-or endings

Some words in U.S. English that end in -er instead end in -re in U.K. English.


The -or/-our endings

Some words in U.S. English that end in -or instead end in -our in U.K. English.


The -ize/-ise endings

Some words in U.S. English that end in -ize instead end in -ise in U.K. English.


The -yze/-yse endings

Some words in U.S. English that end in -yze instead end in -yse in U.K. English.


The -og/-ogue endings

Some words in U.S. English that end in -og instead end in -ogue in U.K. English.


Miscellaneous spelling differences

Some words in U.S. English have any of a variety of spelling differences in U.K. English.

sulfur, sulfate
sulphur, sulphate

There are many other spelling differences among various dialects of English, but these examples give you sense of the concept.

Gray's Anatomy

Primed by the title of this article, you may be wondering which of these is proper:

Gray's Anatomy
Grey's Anatomy

It depends.

If you are referring to the classic anatomical treatise originally penned by Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter, then you should use Gray's Anatomy.

If instead you are referring to a television series featuring the character Meredith Grey, then you should use Grey's Anatomy.  The creators of this show about medical professionals intentionally played on the popularity of the anatomy reference—but in doing so, probably confused a lot of people!

Monday, September 22, 2014

What, if anything, is o-log-y?

After having published other blogs for students and teachers of human anatomy and physiology, it occurs to me that one of the biggest struggles is becoming immersed in a whole new terminology.  

Okay, that didn't just occur to me.  What recently came to mind is the idea of producing a blog for the specific issue of learning the language of human science and medicine. 

So here it is!

Looking ahead, I think I'll be covering concepts like these:

  • Tricky issues like Latin pluralization
  • Pronunciation issues
  • How word parts work, including how terms are built and alternate meanings of word parts
  • Where the terminology comes from
  • Eponyms
    • How to use them
    • Why avoid them
    • Who those people are or were
  • Dissecting specific terms to learn more about their meanings
  • Tips on using terminology
  • Weird terms or usages
  • Terminology trivia

Some of my blog posts will be basic and others will be more advanced.

If you teach in the human sciences, you may want to use the more basic posts to help your students by including links to them in your syllabus, course website or learning management system, or discussions and email messages with your students.  The more advanced posts may help you clarify some of the gaps in your own working knowledge of terminology.

If you are a student of the human sciences, both the basic and advanced posts will help you become more deeply immersed in a new language.  That can only help you better understand concepts and how they are explained or communicated to you.

If you have an ideas for topics, requests, tips, or puzzles you'd like help in solving, please contact me!

The title of this blog is o-log-y.  I derived that name from a dissection of the "-ology" phrase appended to many terms that describe fields of study, such as biology (the scientific study of life) and etymology (the linguistic study of word origins).

[ocombining form, -logwords (study of), -y activity]