September 5, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: consent

Posted in consent and grammar at 6:18 am by dlseltzer

Tip: consent and grammar

Over the years, we’ve clearly established the credentials for my being a geek, so it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that I am on an Institutional Review Board (IRB) Forum mailing list. Hey! I’m the scientific reviewer for General Internal Medicine, so it’s not completely crazy (although it is completely geeky). Anyway, this week’s wlut question comes from the IRB Forum email list.

To the IRB Forum:

 I have a grammar/ageist question.  I am following a thread on another forum about who can be delegated to obtain consent. This morning the tenth commenter said,  “Indeed there are regulations as to who can consent.”

 So I have two questions.

1.  The example above (who can consent) seems flagrant to me and seems to speak to a deeper misunderstanding. That is the ageist part of the question…  Is grammar old-fashioned?  Is this just me thinking that word use is important?  Does this now count in the nit-pick, comment only, category rather than the deeper more meaningful requiring change category?  I know meanings change and dictionaries add and subtract words and alter descriptions over time.  Is this a more modern usage?  (In answering this, you might add your age in decades.)

2.  I was about to make a stronger statement but my mini-lecture seems to get bored nods. I wondered how you do it.  What do you say?  For those who think it is important, do you have any nice, pithy little boilerplate that you use in response to statements like those above?

Signed… Ageist nitpicker

 First, I’m not sure the way ‘ageist’ is used in this letter is what the writer intended. ‘Ageism’ means discrimination against people on the grounds of age—specifically, discrimination against the elderly, and ‘ageist’ means showing or demonstrating discrimination against people on the grounds of age—specifically,  showing discrimination against the elderly. I don’t think the writer was talking about showing discrimination against the elderly; I think the writer was talking about whether her displeasure in seeing ‘consent’ used in the fashion she is writing about is a function of her being older. At least, I think this is what the writer intended, so I will answer the question that way.

You know my answers to the first part of the question, I believe. I’ll respond in reverse.

Is this a more modern usage? CERTAINLY NOT.

 Does this now count in the nit-pick, comment only, category rather than the deeper more meaningful requiring change category? NO.

Is this just me thinking that word use is important? GOOD HEAVENS, NO.

Is grammar old-fashioned? HELL, NO!

‘Consent’ can be a verb, just not the way it’s used, here. ‘Consent’ can mean give permission for something.

The student asked if he could leave the room, and the teacher consented.

At first she was unsure, but finally, she consented.

What is meant, in the writer’s example, is ‘there are regulations about who can obtain informed consent.’

I agree with the writer that words change over time and that grammar is malleable, and it is conceivable that some day it will be acceptable to use ‘consent’ to mean ‘obtain informed consent.’ But that time hasn’t come. It is certainly not today. And furthermore, it is especially important to be precise when dealing with the IRB which tends to be conservative. Let’s stick with ‘obtaining informed consent’ for the foreseeable future.

I can’t think of any ‘pithy’ way to state this as the writer requested; just remember that our goal is clarity and grace.


1 Comment »

  1. Paula Leslie said,

    Being an equal picker of nits… the point of gaining informed consent is that a clinician (usually the physician) is trying to obtain the patient/surrogate’s permission to do something. And the point of this has been lost on generations who now think that to gain consent is to produce the signature on the sheet of paper. As a certain professor of law would say “gaining consent is a process not an event”. For me it is worth hanging on to the sentence structure because it is one way that language might influence behavior and the understanding of the clinical process. The action/permission lies with the patient who should be the most influential party. The clinician is merely aiding that person in something. (Stepping down off the soapbox now…)
    Thank you Deb for your tireless efforts in word smithery and language study!

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