Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Strictly Speaking"

(Edwin Newman, the former NBC newsman best known for his insisitence on the proper use of the English language, recently passed away at the age of 91. His most popular written work, "Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English? reached Number 1 in the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller List.)

I have been known to take things far too literally. For example, last week I was told by a paramedic that a patient’s chief complaint was “being unresponsive.” I couldn’t help but wonder how you did that. It’s not like you can be comatose, suddenly regain consciousness, politely note, “Pardon me, but I am unresponsive.” It’s one of those questions I didn’t think you could possibly answer with a “yes,” like “Are you asleep?” But I’m always surprised in this line of work, and I have seen patients who, when roused from their substance-induced slumbers and holding a rudimentary knowledge of medical terminology, have angrily reminded me, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? DIDN’T YOU HEAR THEM? I’M UNRESPONSIVE!”

Here’s another one. A paramedic called in saying the patient has chest pain “times 0600.” Now, I know, and you know, what he really meant. But that’s not what he said. So I figure if the patient has had chest pain x 0600, it must be 0600 times worse than anybody else’s chest pain. (I’m not sure how to multiply that one out.) It’s like when the paramedic finishes his radio report with “Do you questions or orders?” and you ask them to name the capital of North Dakota. They never said it had to be a medical question, right? And I’m proud to note that during my tenure a decade ago as EMS Medical Director for Volusia County, Florida, the Paramedic State Capital Identification Ratio was the highest ever recorded in the illustrious annals of prehospital care.

Finally, on a somber note, someone recently asked me the “signs of suicide.” I gave the answer that was needed about the risk factors for suicide, but inside I was fighting the urge to say, “The only really definitive sign of suicide is being dead.” And years ago, during my life in public health, I recall being asked to attend “a conference on suicide” and wondering, based on the way the question was asked, if we were for or against it.

(While we’ve been talking syntax, let me share with you the single most annoying grammatical error in American popular culture. In the song “I’ll Be There,” young Michael Jackson wails:

“If you should ever find someone new
I know he’d better be good to you.
Cuz’ if he doesn’t
I’ll be there.”

Five extra credit points, and full permission to burn the Mariah Cary version with a butane torch, if you can spot the problem.)

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