August 11, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: indeterminant/indeterminate & possessives and apostrophes

Posted in indeterminant/indeterminate, possessives at 9:20 am by dlseltzer


From the IRB forum mailing list:

Investigators can clearly conduct research on themselves.

The question is whether an investigator can meet the definition of “human subject.”

Tip 1: Indeterminate or indeterminant or How I went into a frenzy and ran amok

Some of you may remember the old Saturday Night Live skits starring the great Gilda Radner as Emily Litella on the Weekend Update segment. Emily Litella was a somewhat deaf old lady who constantly make verbal faux pas. She would get all worked  up and go into a major rant about something she misconstrued, for example, “Why are people against violins on tv?” And she always ended her skit, once she was informed of her error, by saying, “Never mind.” Well, this week, I had my very own Emily Litella moment.

It all started when a reader asked:

I always use the adjective ‘indeterminant,’ but I often see the word ‘indeterminate’ used by clinicians as in ‘diagnosis—indeterminate.’ Is the ‘ate’ form a clinical term? Is there a difference between indeterminate and indeterminant?

‘Indeterminant’ sounded fine to me,  so when I started to look into this, I was startled to find that it wasn’t a word at all—that indeterminATE was the right term to use. I checked all of my language books and found no mention of the indeterminate-indeterminant debate. I looked in dictionary after dictionary including the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and none of them had a listing for indeterminant. My desk was strewn with books, and it looked like a cyclone had struck. This is outrageous, I thought, and I talked with colleague after colleague, all of whom said they used indeterminant and not the strange indeterminATE. By this time, I had worked myself up into a lather, wondering why no one had addressed this issue. I whipped out a pretty funny WLUT with my rant (I’m actually sorry I can’t use it—it’s a decent piece of writing). I had notion of conspiracies and whatnot. Here is a paragraph:

You have to ask yourself, why aren’t there headlines? Why isn’t this in the many lists of common English errors? It isn’t in any one of my books on English and grammar, and as you know, I have quite a few. Even Fowler is strangely silent on the subject. And why don’t any red squiggly lines show up in Word when you write ‘indeterminant’? Actually, that’s about what I expect from Microsoft., but no matter. This is shocking, and the complete lack of acknowledgement of this issue is hard to understand.

I was pretty worked up, and while it was reassuring that my colleagues agreed with me, and I found 100,000 hits when I googled it (which, in retrospect, isn’t that many). I couldn’t figure out why this wasn’t front page news. So I called an old friend to ask him to check yet another dictionary, so I could be sure. I started spluttering to him that this is so strange, and it doesn’t make sense. And my friend (not a colleague so he had no need for professional decorum) said, “YOU’RE AN IDIOT! Of course the word is indeterminATE, but it’s not pronounced like ‘eight;’ it’s pronounced like ‘it’ as in ‘indeterminit.’”

I thought, “Oh, when you put it like that…of course, indeterminate pronounced ‘indeterminit’ is the right word.”

Just like the adjective, indiscriminate, which is pronounced ‘indiscriminit.’

To be perfectly honest, at this point, I don’t know whether I used indeterminant or indeterminate in the past. Using the ‘it’ pronounciation, they actually sound pretty much alike. But I will surely spell it indeterminate in the future.

And to all my friends and colleagues who got an earful of my outrage, “Never mind.”

Tip 2: Using apostrophes to show possession

In the past week, I reviewed documents by two different authors in which needed apostrophes were left out. Here is an example from one of the documents:

The only unique identifier being collected is the last five digits of the participants social security number.

What he should have written was this:

The only unique identifier being collected is the last five digits of the participantssocial security numbers.

Since participants is possessive—it is their social security numbers—an apostrophe is needed.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but this is what you have to remember:

With the exception of possessive pronouns (e.g., our your, my, its, their), all nouns need an apostrophe in them when showing possession. The question isn’t whether they need an apostrophe, they all do—the question is whether you need an apostrophe s.

And this is the answer. In most cases, you do want an apostrophe s to form the possessive case.

Single nouns that DON’T end in s need an apostrophe s (e.g., the tree’s leaves, the student’s text book).

Single nouns that DO end in s need an apostrophe s (e.g., the boss’s announcement, Dr. Roberts’s degree).

Plural nouns that DON’T end in s need an apostrophe s (e.g., children’s toys, women’s book club).

Plural nouns that DO end in s just need an appostrophe, NO s (e.g., all the dogs’ bones,  the ranchers’ cattle).

And that’s it. Just do use the apostrophe where it is needed (and don’t, where it is not).



  1. Anonymous said,

    I still can’t convince one my clinical directors that indeterminant isn’t a word. Nice jab at MS Word (lol) but it did attempt to correct the spelling with “in determinant” in the 2010 eds.

  2. How this happened is indeterminate.

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