Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

Language Precision Helps Us to Educate and Learn

Sloppy Language Causes Problems, and Can Even Harm.

Posted Jul 17, 2015

Language can be a vehicle for learning, teaching, and inspiring. Language can comfort, unsettle, or provoke us. But language too often clouds meanings, veils or distorts reality, and retards our attempts to solve problems.

Some misuses of language may be primarily irritating, such as the recent fad of mistakenly saying that somethings "begs the question" when what the writer means is "raises the question." As explained on the Web site Logically Fallacious, "begging the question" is actually a form of circular reasoning, such as in the statement, "Paranormal activity is real because I have experienced what can only be described as paranormal activity."  My impression is that many people who misuse the term do so out of either ignorance or pretentiousness.

Recently, as there seemed to be an upsurge in use of the expression "sea change," I looked it up to see what kind of change that meant. I had assumed it meant a very gradual change, such as the sea's very gradual erosion of rocks, but someone who is a sailor assured me that it meant the opposite, the kind of rapid change in the wind that necessitates the sudden alteration of the sails of his vessel. The Oxford English Dictionary listing is "a change wrought by the sea...with or without allusion to Shakespeare's alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change."  

The lines from The Tempest are: "Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a Sea-change into something rich, & strange." Note that it is unclear whether the change is gradual or sudden or whether the term applies only to change's magnitude, not to its speed. However, a bit earlier in that speech from The Tempest is the line "Those are pearls that were his eyes," which suggests the more gradual kind of change. When I asked a number of my most literate friends what "sea change" means, they were divided about whether it was a gradual or sudden one, but each was quite certain of their definition.

The point—which may seem nitpicking to those not particularly interested in language—is that we may be wrong when we think we know what someone means when they refer, for instance, to a sea change or to begging the question.

Many years ago, when I was teaching in a graduate program in School Psychology, my students and I were studying children's learning problems. I asked them to avoid using terms like "auditory processing deficit" when trying to understand what was keeping a child from learning. They asked why, since such terms were so entrenched in the field, and I responded by asking them—many of whom had already worked in Special Education—to write down a definition of "auditory processing deficit." Some of their definitions were vague and unclear, and some contradicted each other. I urged them to listen to the child and parents, as well as administering carefully chosen tests, and then try to identify the child's learning barriers without being misled or having our thinking clouded by the jargon.

One student came to my office later and said with tears in her eyes that she had been a special education teacher for several years and had done what she had been taught to do, which was to look at test results, classify them according to this kind of jargon, and then use the cookbook approach of, "If a child has X, you use technique Y." She realized that this had kept her from looking clearly at what was really happening with the child, but this jargon-free approach resonated with what her experience had taught her, which was that every child who was struggling in school was an individual who differed in important ways from other children in both what they had difficulty doing and what they were able to do, in their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and that the best way to help them was to focus on them in those ways.

Before I left the field of children's learning problems, I wrote about this in a paper I called "Confusing terms and false dichotomies: A plea for logical thinking about learning disability."* That field remains heavily laden with jargon that is often ill-defined and that is used to market packaged learning disability materials and approaches.

Readers of my work are familiar with my decades-long concern about the absence of science in the field of psychiatric diagnosis and the harm so often done by the use of hundreds of diagnostic labels that give the false impression that both reliability and validity underlie them.** 

Sometimes careless use of language is just annoying or perhaps innocuous though imprecise, but when it comes to some of us presenting ourselves as helping professionals, those in need of help ought to be able to assume that we are using crucial terms thoughtfully and with attention to what alleviates struggles and suffering.

What Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015) resonates with my feelings: "...somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection" (p. 123).
For "20 Misused English Words That Make People Look Silly," see

*Caplan, Paula J. Confusing terms and false dichotomies: A plea for logical thinking about learning disability. Orbit 19(4), December, 1988 14-15.

**As just two examples, see Kirk, Stuart A. and Kutchins, Herb. The Selling of DSM: The Rhetoric of Science in Psychiatry. New York: Aldine, 1992, and my They Say You're Crazy: How the World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1995.

©Copyright 2015 by Paula J. Caplan                                  All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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