October 14, 2009

Language Tips: Healthy or healthful & methods or methodology

Posted in healthy/healthful, methods/methodology at 9:15 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Healthy or healthful

A reader writes:

How about a wlut piece on the difference between ‘healthful’ and ‘healthy,’ which no one but Alex Witchel and I and maybe you, know.

New York Times: The Food Issue

Putting America’s Diet on a Diet

By Alex Witchel October 6, 2009

..He built a community center where residents could learn to cook inexpensively for their families while instilling the idea that healthful eating is not a luxury…

It was kind of the reader to give me the consideration. Maybe me? No maybe at all. This distinction was totally lost on me. In fact, I had just completed a PowerPoint presentation on stress and writing productivity, and on one slide, I had written this.


The slide now reads:


What’s this about? Aren’t we supposed to eat healthy foods? Well, the problem is this: foods aren’t healthy-people are healthy.

‘Healthy’ means possessing good health and refers only to living things, and ‘healthful’ refers to anything that promotes or is conducive to good health. So the correct phrasing would be:

Eating healthful foods will make you a healthy person.

Who knew?

In his 2009 third edition of Modern American Usage, Garner says:

In fact, though, many writers use healthy when they mean healthful, and healthy threatens to edge out its sibling. Such a development be unhelpful, since it would lead to a less healthy state of the language.

I love language, and I love learning about such things as the distinction between ‘healthful’ and ‘healthy.’ I also like precision, and for all of these reasons, I will use ‘healthful’ to describe foods and other things that contribute to good health. But that’s just me.

I freely acknowledge that healthy is very widely used to refer to things that are beneficial to good health, and I have no quarrel with that. I don’t think that usage is going away. So use whatever makes you happy. All I have to say is this: à votre santé.

Tip 2: Methods or methodology

A reader writes:

Dear Language Helper Seltzer-

This past week, there was a presentation, where the term ‘Methodology’ was used repeatedly. The context of the term was to describe the ‘methods’ used in this particular study.
I cannot recall if you have dealt with this issue already in a previous posting. For whatever reason, folks just keep using this term, when ‘Methods’ would be simpler, and more precise. (I think that ‘Methodology’ would technically be the study of methods, not a description of the study methods).

If you have not discussed this previously, could you opine?

Of course, I am always happy to comment (and on just about anything, I might add). I will start with the short answer: the reader is right. Here is the longer explanation. A method is a procedure or way of doing something, especially according to a specific plan.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, ‘method’ refers to:

A systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline.

So when we talk about ‘research methods,’ we are talking about the techniques we are using to conduct a study.

To complete this study, we used a number of methods, including the conduct of focus groups, the administration of a brief survey, and finally, the conduct of a pilot randomized controlled trial to determine feasibility and acquire preliminary data.

On the other hand, ‘methodology’ refers not to the methods themselves but to a study of or theoretical analysis of the methods appropriate to a field of study. It involves theory and philosophy as opposed to a systematic procedure.

The task of methodology is to analyze or investigate the methods of a discipline over time to develop a better understanding of the underlying assumptions.

So ‘methodology’ and ‘methods’ are not the same. Most authorities indicate the use of ‘methodology’ when discussing ‘methods’ is pretentious, and all agree that it is inaccurate.

The American Heritage Dictionary provides a reasonable usage note which concludes:

People may have taken to this practice by influence of the adjective methodological to mean “pertaining to methods.” Methodological may have acquired this meaning because people had already been using the more ordinary adjective methodical to mean “orderly, systematic.” But the misuse of methodology obscures an important conceptual distinction between the tools of scientific investigation (properly methods) and the principles that determine how such tools are deployed and interpreted.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

I know that I use the word ‘precision’ quite a lot, but that is because it is so vital to be precise in the conduct of research and in the words we choose to communicate about it. So unless you are writing a philosophical treatise, stick to ‘methods’ when writing about how you performed your research.


1 Comment »

  1. Joanne said,

    I could not agree more with your final sentence. Now if I could only convince certain research writers of this.

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