December 3, 2009

Language Tips: Finished or done & ideation or thought

Posted in finished/done, ideation or thought at 10:25 am by dlseltzer


An eagle-eyed reader sent in this sighting:


Designed to reconnect the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal and sited in a natural open amphitheatre at Rough Castle near Falkirk, this remarkable and elegant mechanical marvel is the only rotating boatlift in the world and truly one of a kind.

The reader goes on to say:

I won’t even ask what a closed amphitheater is.

This sighting requires a caveat of sorts. While the reader is correct that, by definition, an amphitheatre (or amphitheater) is an open-air arena or venue, the word has been more recently used to refer to the gallery over an operating room from which spectators can observe surgery being performed. That being said, when not referring to the spectacle of an operation, an amphitheater should refer to an open-air arena.

Tip 1: Finished or done

A reader writes:

I am new to this blog. Please forgive me if my request is a well-beaten, dead horse. I am unable to warm up to the use of ‘done’ instead of ‘finished.’ I was taught that the food was done and when I had eaten all that I could hold, I was finished. Do I have a valid argument?

This is an old argument, with the premise being that things are ‘done’ while people are ‘finished.’ And my most definitive answer is this: no and yes.

These words have been used synonymously pretty much forever, and such use is considered standard. Both people and things can be done, and both people and things can be finished.

When I finally finished writing the grant proposal, I was very relieved that I was done.

We decided it was time to celebrate now that the grant proposal was finally done!

Both of these sentences are correct. And both are still correct if we change done to finished.

When I finally finished writing the grant proposal, I was very relieved that I was finished.

We decided it was time to celebrate now that the grant proposal was finally finished!

So, the answer to ‘Do I have a valid argument?’ is no.

But, on the other hand…

While in conversation and informal writing, all the above is true, for formal writing, that is, writing for publications and grant proposal writing, I would stick with the old rule, if only because some of your readers may believe it to be the case that things are done and people are finished.

Although, along the way, I’d consider the use of the word, ‘complete.’

Tip 2: Ideation or thought

A reader writes:

Suggested topic for a future post…

The word ‘ideation,’ as in ‘suicidal ideation.’ There is an English word for this: ‘thought.’ But 9 of 10 papers in suicide prevention use ‘ideation.’
Should I resist Yet Another Needless Medical Word? Or submit to nomenclatural redundification?

I have to admit, I am quite smitten with the word ‘redundification.’ It’s almost onomatopoeic in a strange way and has quite distracted me from the question at hand. But I shall get to it.

Ideation does mean thought, and when writing about suicidal thoughts in general, the words can be used interchangeably.

But, I wondered, does suicidal ideation have a more specific meaning when used in a medical context that goes beyond just suicidal thoughts?

To find the answer to this, I consulted a foremost authority of geriatric psychiatry and depression, Dr. Charles (Chip) Reynolds III. If you don’t know him, Dr. Reynolds holds the title of UPMC professor of psychiatry, and professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition, he is a senior associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and directs the Advanced Center for Interventions and Services Research for Late-Life Mood Disorders for the Study of Late-Life Mood Disorders at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Chip is internationally renowned in the field of geriatric psychiatry. His primary research interests focus on mood and sleep disorders of later life, with a particular focus on treatment (including mental health services in primary care, the mechanisms of treatment response, preventive interventions, and suicide prevention.) He is also one of the world’s great mentors.

So I asked Chip if ‘suicidal ideation’ had a more specific meaning than ‘thoughts of suicide,’ and this was his response:

‘Suicidal ideation’ covers a broad spectrum, from wishing one were dead, to formulating a specific plan with high intention and potential lethality, to an actual attempt. Clinically, it’s important to assess this spectrum carefully and precisely.

To answer the writer’s original question, when writing about non-specific suicidal thoughts in general, I suggest that it is appropriate, and even preferable, to call the ideas ‘thoughts.’ However, if you are referring to any of the specific stages of suicidal thought (e.g., planning, attempting), then, ideation is the correct word.

That being said, I understand the writer’s frustration. I suspect that many writers using the term, suicidal ideation, are really writing about suicidal thoughts, and that use of the jargon is a habit rather than the result of carefully selecting the precise word. Thus, this question is a good reminder for us of the importance or precision and clarity in writing.


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