October 28, 2009

Language Tips: Symptomatology & at about/around

Posted in advice/advise, at about/around, indenting quotes, references in grant proposals, symptomatology, tenses in manuscripts at 10:49 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Symptomatology

A reader writes:

Last week, you discussed use of “Methodology” vs. “Methods.” Today I read in a dictated medical note:

“The patient is having difficulty coping with his symptomatology.”

This brought to mind the recent discussion of the incorrect use of “methodology.” Specifically, would it not be cleaner to state that the patient was having difficulty coping with his symptoms?

However, when I looked up “symptomatology”, the following definitions are offered:


1. the branch of medical science that studies the symptoms of diseases.
2. the combined symptoms of a particular disease.

So, was this use of “symptomatology” appropriate?

I think that the reader’s suspicions are correct-the person dictating the medical note (I am sorely tempted to call this person the ‘dictator’) probably meant symptoms. But I can’t be sure.

I did a little research into this, and what I found was that the majority of authorities use the first of the definitions above, ‘the branch of medical science that studies the symptoms of diseases,’ as either the only or the primary definition for symptomatology.

However, several authorities use the secondary definition as well. My Merriam Webster’s Medical Desk Dictionary refers to a ‘symptom complex’; others refer to ‘the combined symptoms of a disease’ or ‘all the symptoms of a given disease.’ I think the key to this definition is the notion of each and every one of the symptoms of the disease, not allowing for the discussion of just some of the symptoms.

So, is the person who dictated the note speaking of every one of the symptoms of the disease and their combined impact on the patient? It’s certainly possible. I imagine that the cumulative effect of multiple symptoms would be difficult to deal with; however, I suspect that the person is really talking about some of the symptoms and is using the word ‘symptomatology’ erroneously in an attempt to sound smarter.

Tip 2: At about/around

A reader writes:

Hello! Thank you for the wonderful blog you’re writing – it’s really helpful! Could you discuss the correctness of using “at around” vs “around” when describing time? As an example:

I left my house around noon.


I left my house at around noon.

My style guide (S&W) and grammar (Thomson & Martinet) do not explain this usage, and online sources tend to be contradicting themselves. I feel like the “at around” is either a contradiction (it’s either “at” or “around”), or redundant at best. But people in US use it all the time, which confuses me (as an ESL speaker, who learned British English as a kid).

Thank you!

This reader is quite observant; in the US, we do use ‘at around’ quite often when referring to time. ‘At about’ is also used often.

I’ll be leaving at about 7:00 this evening.

I left the store at around 10:30 AM.

It could be argued that ‘at around’ and ‘at about’ are redundant, and it is true that you will retain your meaning if you remove the word ‘at.’ But, as Garner states in his 2009 Modern American Usage,

…the phrase at about [or at around] is common, idiomatic, and unimpeachable <we’ll arrive at about 9:00 tonight>.

While I agree with Garner, I would add that this holds true for conversations and conversational writing. In our formal writing, please avoid the idiomatic expressions and aim for precision.

Quick tips from my email:

A reader writes:

I want to include a rather long quotation in my manuscript. At what point should I indent the quotation rather than just separate it from the rest with quotation marks?

DLS: There is no simple single rule for this. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends indenting the quotation when cited text is 100 words or more or at least eight lines. The MLA Handbook suggests that a quote be indented if it is at least four lines. Other sources suggest indenting the quote if it is more than 40 words. I would indent the quotation if it is at least four lines. There is also no consensus as to how much to indent the quote. Generally, if you use an inch, you’ll be fine. Single space the quotation, and don’t use quotation marks!

A reader writes:

May I ask you a question about an issue I have been struggling with?

Which of the following is correct, when using the word as a verb?

Please advice me on a matter?


Please advise me on a matter?

DLS: Advice is the noun; advise is the verb.

A reader writes:

Hi, I have a quick question re. grant proposal resubmissions: would you list references cited in the 3-page Introduction in the general Bibliography or should they go in the 3-pager?

DLS: In the general bibliography. You will need all of your three pages for your response. Keep in mind, starting next year, we will only have 1 page for the response. We will need a new way of dealing with this section.

A reader writes:

When I write the introduction of a paper, should I use past tense or present tense? Past tense are often used for the methods and results sections, but I see both ways for introduction. Sometimes people use present tense in the introduction to say “we hypothesize, we aim to do…” and then switch to past in the results “we found…”. Also in the Results section, it seems to read well if I say “Table 1 presents …” rather than “Table 1 presented …”. But it seems to read better if I say “We found” rather than “we find” … This potential inconsistency could occur in the Discussion section too, where I often either summarize what we found (past) or draw policy implications (present).

Other people might argue one should be consistent in using past or present throughout the manuscript.

I don’t see a consistent pattern while reading published manuscripts. What is your opinion about this?

DLS: It really depends.If you are talking about the state of things currently in the introduction, I would use the present tense. If you are talking about things you posited in the past, I would use the past. For the methods and results, I would use the past since it involves actions that have already taken place. I would use the past tense for when you are talking about things that occurred but it’s fine to use present or future when you are talking about policies that may be established or what the tables are showing.

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