Fillers When I use a word …

Addressing the issue

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7279.139/b (Published 20 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:139
  1. Neville W Goodman, consultant anaesthetist
  1. Bristol

    “address (v) 1 write someone's name on (envelope or parcel). 2 speak formally to, direct one's remarks to. 3 think about and begin to deal with. 4 (golf) prepare to hit (the ball).”1

    Address in its third sense has joined “involve” as a “lazily overused”2 verb that “makes it the delight of those who dislike the effort of searching for the right word”3 or “the trouble of precise thought.”4 Searching bmj.com for “addresses” or “addressing” mines a rich seam. There is almost nothing that cannot be addressed: arguments, definitions, expectations, gaps, inequalities, representativeness, risks, shortages, threats, variations, and even what is right and what is wrong.

    What is wrong with all these uses of address is that we do not know what the writers intend. When arguments are addressed, are they defined, considered, accepted, or countered? Are expectations being described, denied, or realised? Are variations being analysed, categorised, or reduced? Most popular for addressing are issues and questions, which is an even higher level of vagueness because the issue or question will be one of definitions, expectations, gaps, inequalities, and so on. If a question is addressed, is it framed, asked, or answered? Any word has to be treated with suspicion if context or motive can switch its meaning between “ask” and “answer”.

    Sometimes, address is not needed at all: “only the ttest … addresses a comparison of arithmetic means” means simply “the t test compares arithmetic means.”

    In the retrieved issues of bmj.com, the verb address was used for its precise meanings just twice in 92 uses: once for addressing a conference and once for a consideration of Mr or Dr being the correct way to address a surgeon. Given the popularity of the golf course as a place of recreation for doctors, perhaps it is surprising it was never used for its other precise meaning.

    1. Concise Oxford dictionary, 10th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    2. Greenbaum S, Whitcut J. Longman guide to English usage. Marlow: Longman, 1988.

    3. Gowers E. The complete plain words, 3rd ed. Revised S Greenbaum, J Whitcut. London: HMSO, 1986.

    4. Fowler's modern English usage. Revised W Gowers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

    We welcome articles of up to 600 words on topics such as A memorable patient, A paper that changed my practice, My most unfortunate mistake, or any other piece conveying instruction, pathos, or humour. If possible the article should be supplied on a disk. Permission is needed from the patient or a relative if an identifiable patient is referred to. We also welcome contributions for “Endpieces,” consisting of quotations of up to 80 words (but most are considerably shorter) from any source, ancient or modern, which have appealed to the reader.

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