Just Words?

Some Advice from Professor Miller

The childhood taunt says "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me!" Whereas this might be a truthful counter to hateful words, misuse of words limits understanding and betrays a lack of understanding in a speaker. Misuse of words undermines the reputation of someone who presents themselves as an educated person. This is not unique to science, as you can read here how someone in arts and editing views the slippery slope that is careless use of professional language.

I encourage my students to refine their use of language, specifically scientific terminology. I make students aware of some common problems and make the assimilation of word roots part of my courses. I do this to polish students' education, and to give students a tool (word roots) that carries well beyond a semester.

Chances are that no one will correct an error to your face (except, perhaps some professors), but those who know will think less of you if you misuse the language. This is not simply a matter of regional dialect or generational slang; this is demonstration of understanding of professional language. Below are some common examples (and one less common) of how people with a college education can appear not to know what they are talking about, or at least not to have much understanding of language.

If you have made the following errors, you have lots of company. Still, I urge students who desire to sound like they have had the expensive education in which they invested to think about how they speak. I had to retrain myself for some of these, and you can do it too.


The word is dis (Greek for separate or apart) sect (Latin, to cut). It describes a mode of investigation that teases structure apart carefully and thoughtfully. The word is not spelled d-i-s-e-c-t. You do not say dye-solve or dye-scuss, so why would you say dye-sect? The most probable explanation is that people are repeating what they have heard without thinking about the word. The fact remains that people who say dye-sect, appear to be less knowledgeable than they intend. Correct pronunciation also helps spelling.


OK, I know that aPOPtosis seems to be winning out in the pronunciation lottery (1). Saying it that way might be easier on the tongue, but it betrays an ignorance of language. Although we say pTEROdactyl (pter, G, a wing; dactyl, G, finger or toe) without pronouncing the p, we also say heliCOPter (helico, G, a spiral). The inventors of the word, apoptosis, (2) followed the tradition of science and thought about word roots when they coined the term. Apo (G, from, off, away) ptosis (G, fall) is a reasonable description of the shrinkage that causes cells in programmed death to "fall away" from their neighbors. The choice is yours, but those who know language will care if their use of the language reveals that understanding.

Affect / Effect

These are commonly misused. Affect is a verb (The change in the schedule will affect you). Effect is commonly a noun (What was the effect of adding peroxidase? or The artist preferred to use warm colors to produce the desired effect.), but effect can be used as a verb (Localized cell death effected removal of the membrane.) In the second example, effect means to cause; to bring about. It is important to pronounce these words clearly and to use them accurately.


A fact is a datum, two or more facts are data. That is, data are plural; the singular is datum. Therefore, despite frequent misuse in the media, and even by some professors, it not correct to say "this data" or "the data shows". It should be "these data" and "the data show".

Following popular use of the word (3), these corrections would not be necessary, but unless other rules along the lines of "every one does it" guide your life, you'd be wise to stay with the use based on the history of the term rather than the latest excuse for sloppy use of language.

Glade and Glen

"Dear is thy homestead, glade and glen." is the opening line of Charissima (4), the school song of Hamilton College. As one who was a student in the 1960's, I know well the irreverence that students have for official songs of their alma mater, and how it is often a matter of pride not to know the words beyond the first few. However, a student who graduates from Hamilton should know the difference between a glen and a glade and a woods. From Webster's Dictionary.....

glen (Sc) a secluded narrow valley
glade an open space surrounded by woods
woods (from Old English) a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest

The Hamilton College campus is situated on a wooded hill that is cut with several attractive glens. There are trails in the woods and some of these trails go down to and along the streams that cut these glens. Folks walk, run, bike and ski these trails in season. The majority refer to one popular trail through the Kirkland Woods as the Kirkland "Glen" even though that loop trail (also called the Bridle Path) never drops into what is truely the Kirkland Glen (see topo maps). A side trail descends into and crosses the Kirkland Glen. It is Potter's Trail, named for the Emeritus Professor of Geology who used it regularly to walk/ski to campus. Most hikers, bikers and skiers never descend into the Kirkland Glen -- walls are steep and the challenge is correspondingly so. Ditto for Roger's Glen. Even the very civilized paths of the Root Glen are more frequently walked than skied. I know it is possible to ski glen trails, because I have done it many times. More than sixty years of maneuvering in steep snow with slats on my feet and packs (sometimes full of small child) on my back helped me develop a few skills. During 4 decades on this campus I have seen the use of these wooded areas increase, and I am happy for the interest that will also help protect them. However, I am embarassed for members of this community who do not seem to understand the meaning of the word, glen.


  1. Funder, J. 1994 Apoptosis: two p or not to p? Nature 371:98
  2. Kerr, J.F.R., Wyllie, A.H. and Currie, A.R. 1972 Apoptosis: a basic biological phenomenon with wide-ranging implications in tissue kinetics. British Journal of Cancer 26:239-257. (footnote on page 241 crediting Classics Professor James Cormack for the term)
  3. Merriam-Webser Online Dictionary under data, usage [http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?data]
  4. M.W. Stryker 1872. (Adapted)

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This page last modified: March 2015