July 16, 2009

Language Tips: Sentinel, seminal, and evanescent & quotation marks and colons and semicolons

Posted in evanescent, punctuation & quotes, quotations and colons, seminal, sentinal at 6:00 am by dlseltzer



July 13, 2009

Whomever is selected would replace Ms. Buchanan.

We seem to have licked the problem of when to use ‘who’ and when to use ‘whom,’ but we still stumble over when to use ‘whoever’ and when to use ‘whomever.’

Briefly, in the example above, the entire initial clause is the subject of the sentence. Thus ‘Whoever is elected’ is the subject of ‘would replace Ms. Buchanan.’ And ‘whoever’ is the subject of ‘is.’

“Whomever’ would be correct if we rephrased the statement to make ‘whomever’ the object.

Whomever you select would replace Ms. Buchanan.

‘Whomever you select’ is the subject of ‘would replace Ms. Buchanan.’ And ‘whomever’ is the object of ‘you select.’

There are some tricks for testing this, most commonly, rephrasing the sentences and trying to replace ‘whoever’ or ‘whomever’ with ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘him’ or ‘her’ and seeing what works best. If you want, in a future WLUT, I will get into this in more depth.

Tip 1: Sentinel, seminal, and evanescent

A reader writes:

How about use/misuse of: sentinel (does not mean first or important): seminal (ditto); evanescent (does not mean variable)….saw these three recently!

Okay, first off, I have to admit that I have not seen ‘evanescent’ used to mean variable, but for the record, it means ‘vanishing, fading away, or fleeting.’ [NOTE: I was sorely tempted to write a joke about thinking that evanescent means bubbly; I humbly thank my friends who dissuaded me from this.] As to the other two, ‘sentinel’ and ‘seminal,’ I have issues.

Methadone syrup injection in Australia: a sentinel finding? Addiction. 2003 Apr;98(4):385-6.

At first glance, I was in complete agreement with the writer about ‘sentinel.’ It absolutely does not mean ‘first or important.’ It means ‘sentry or guard,’ and that’s it. But as I thought about it, I decided that it is difficult to determine whether it is being used correctly from the title alone. Two specific uses of sentinel in the fields of medicine and epidemiology pointed the way.

1. SENTINEL SURVEILLANCE is an epidemiological approach that involves monitoring of the rate of occurrence of specific conditions to assess the stability or change in health levels of a population. It is also the study of disease rates in a specific cohort, geographic area, population subgroup, etc., and is used to estimate trends in larger population. [Thanks to mondofacto.com for an assist with this definition]

2. The Joint Commission (formerly the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations [JCAHO]) defines SENTINEL EVENT as “an unexpected occurrence involving death or serious physical or psychological injury, or the risk thereof. Serious injury specifically includes loss of limb or function. The phrase, “or the risk thereof” includes any process variation for which a recurrence would carry a significant chance of a serious adverse outcome. Such events are called “sentinel” because they signal the need for immediate investigation and response.

Wait, this means is that my first thoughts were wrong. Sentinel does not necessarily mean ‘first,’ but it could be the first, and it means more than ‘important’: it means ‘so important that it needs to be investigated.’

So considering the example above, if the authors were making the point that what they found out about methadone syrup was the first such finding or an important finding but no further action is called for, they used the word incorrectly. However, if they were attempting to convey something about methadone among Australians OR they were reporting a risk related to the use of methadone syrup that calls for investigation and action, then they were using it correctly. You have to read the article to know for sure.

On to seminal.

Half a century since publication of the seminal study by Court-Brown and Doll of leukaemia following medical irradiation. Journal of Radiological Protection, Volume 27, Issue 4B, pp. B1-B2 (2007).

The reader notes that it doesn’t mean first or important. I would argue that it does if we take first and important to the nth degree. It is ‘important’ on steroids. Seminal, of course, means related to semen or seeds, but it also means ‘groundbreaking, original, influential.’

At the site, Dictionary.com, after the meanings related to semen and seed, the following definitions are provided: ‘having possibilities of future development’ and ‘highly original and influencing the development of future events.’

These meanings make their relationship with ‘seed’ clear. A seminal study provides new seeds of ideas that will evolve and grow. A lovely and natural transition from the literal meaning.

Tip 2: Quotation marks and colons and semicolons

A while back, I wrote about quotation marks and some kinds of punctuation (periods and commas go within quotes; question marks and exclamation points go according to the logic of the sentence), but I didn’t remark on how we should punctuate colons and semicolons when used next to quotation marks, but when I was writing tip 1, I ran into this situation so thought I would briefly comment.

This is the sentence, I used (looking at it now, it is a tad complex, but that’s neither here nor there):

Sentinel does not necessarily mean ‘first,’ but it could be the first, and it means more than ‘important’: it means ‘so important that it needs to be investigated.’

Quite simply, colons and semicolons should go outside the quotation marks. And that’s all there is to it.



  1. Simon said,

    Hi, I would like to receive your excellent posts by email.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Hi. You need to include your email address. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: