Medical and Scientific Matters
Medical terms by prefix
Most medical terms are derived from Latin or Greek, and many body parts are covered by both sets. To be sure that you are not confusing your liver with your kidneys, this is a list of some of the most common prefixes and suffixes with the body parts to which they refer, ordered alphabetically:
a-, an- without, eg anaesthesia (without sensation)
aur- ear, as in aural. Not to be confused with oral, to do with the mouth
neur- nervous system
or- mouth, as in oral. Not to be confused with aural, to do with the ear
The same list ordered by body part
brain cerebr- or encephal-
ear aur- (not to be confused with or- for mouth); ot-
eye ocul- or ophthalm-
kidney nephr- or ren-
lungs pneum- or pulmo-
mouth or- (not to be confused with aur- for ear)
nervous system neur-
teeth odont- or dent-
ecto- outside, as in ectopic pregnancy
endo- inside, as in endoscopy
hypo- too little, as in hypothermia
-ectomy surgical removal
-stomy creation of an opening
Drugs exist under two names, generic and brand. For example Prozac is the brand name for fluoxetine. Generic names are lower case, brand names are capped.
The term ‘junior doctors’ covers all those working in hospital below the level of consultant, and trainee general practitioners. They are all called Dr. The old ranks of house officer and senior house officer (the first posts after graduating from medical school) are now called ‘foundation doctors’. The next level is called registrar, either in a hospital specialty* or training in general practice. The top level is consultant or GP. Consultant surgeons are known as Mr/Miss/Mrs, but all others remain Dr.
*Sad to say, all medical literature seems to refer to American-style ‘specialties’. Try to avoid.
Hospitals and universities
Broadmoor is a hospital, not a prison, and inmates are patients, not prisoners. The same applies to Ashworth Hospital, Sefton, Merseyside, and Rampton Hospital, Nottinghamshire.
John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. The old Radcliffe Infirmary building is now occupied by Oxford University.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Peninsula Medical School, Plymouth, not Peninsular
St Thomas’, London (not the technically correct St Thomas’s)
HFEA is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a quango which licenses clinics carrying out assisted conception procedures such as IVF (in vitro fertilisation) and human embryo research.
NHS or health service, usually not National Health Service; primary care trusts (PCTs).
NICE is the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, a part of the NHS previously called the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. I would use the abbreviation (which remains the same) in caps to avoid confusion with the word ‘nice’.
Subbing medical and scientific stories
These are adapted from guidelines supplied by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre.
State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc.
Specify the size of the study.
Give a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation.
Don’t call something a ‘cure’ that is not a cure.
Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.
Many of the units we use are covered by the International System of Units (SI), which is the official style guide for scientists, officials, engineers, schools and universities. The system is used in all dictionaries, encyclopedias and official documents. Under the SI system the building block units of measurement (time, weight, volume, distance etc) are given an abbreviation, as are the prefixes which denote scale. Some are upper case, others are lower case, and it can change the meaning of a unit to use the wrong case. Units outside the SI, such as miles, ounces and Fahrenheit, have universally accepted abbreviations.
Prefixes which change the scale
k kilo (thousand)
M mega (million)
G giga (US billion, ie a thousand million)
T tera (thousand billion)
c centi (hundredth)
m milli (thousandth)
μ micro (millionth)
n nano (billionth)
So: a gigawatt is GW, a kilowatt is kW and a kilometre is km. This matters a lot to readers with some scientific knowledge, and is why you should use C and F for temperatures.
Bq becquerel (unit of radioactivity)
Most of these entries appear in other sections of the style guide, but are gathered together here for ease of reference.
adrenaline is the hormone, Adrenalin is a synthetic substitute which is a trademark and takes a cap.
Aids is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is not an illness in itself, but renders the body unable to fight off lethal infections. Thus you should say someone died of an Aids-related illness, not of Aids. It develops from the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV for short. In theory one should not say ‘HIV virus’ as this repeats the word ‘virus’, but it is such common currency that I don’t think you can avoid it. (More on this in Political Correctness.)
anaemia, not anemia
antenna has two meanings: a part of a radio receiver, when the plural is ‘antennas’, and an insect’s feeler, when the plural is ‘antennae’. Additionally, I learned from a correspondent to the i newspaper, it is wrong to talk of ‘powerful’ antennas and receivers. These need to be sensitive, while transmitters need to be powerful.
bacteria and viruses: These are different and are not interchangeable. Look it up if it is relevant to the story. Probably all you need to know is that antibiotics are used to treat bacterial but not viral infections. Bacteria is the plural of bacterium, so do not put ‘the bacteria is’. Examples of viruses include measles, flu and HIV. Examples of bacteria are MRSA, Clostridium difficile or C.diff, TB and legionnaires’ disease. Meningitis and pneumonia have viral and bacterial forms. Both bacteria and viruses may be called ‘germs’. I am not keen on ‘bug’, which also covers both, but use it if you must. Malaria (l/c) is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes. It is not a virus or a bacterial infection.
caesarean section, not caesarian (lower case); caesarean is acceptable on its own. (Justification for lower case: we don’t cap up wellington or sandwich, also named after people). Increasingly the term ‘c-section’ is used. I think ‘caesarean’ should be used first, then c-section in a subsequent reference if you wish.
cochlea (noun): The part of the inner ear which is sometimes replaced with a cochlear (adj) implant to alleviate deafness.
contagious/infectious: All diseases which can be passed from one person to another are infectious, but ‘contagious’ is reserved for those which are easily spread among the general population going about their normal business and which can in theory be contained by isolating patients or quarantining those at risk. Examples of contagious infections are measles and chickenpox. Non-contagious infections include yellow fever, which requires a mosquito for transmission, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which obviously require a particular form of behaviour.
data is treated as a singular noun, although it is technically a plural, so for example ‘The data shows that . . .’
diabetes, type 1 or 2: Both words are lower case. Note that the figures should be figures, not words.
disease, as in Parkinson’s disease: Lower case even if used in conjunction with a name.
epileptic: The adjective for fits, not a noun for a person. Say ‘he has epilepsy’, not ‘he is an epileptic’. Similarly, schizophrenic and diabetic.
gender: This is the grammatical classification of masculine, feminine or neuter; sex is the biological classification of male and female. Thus ‘gender-bender’ or ‘gender-bending’ is technically wrong but we’ll never stamp it out now.
geriatric does not mean elderly, but is applied to medical treatment for the elderly, as in geriatric hospital. Therefore we should not talk of ‘geriatrics’ when we mean elderly people.
haemophilia: The clotting treatment should be called factor VIII (Roman numerals), not 8 (l/c ‘factor’).
hospitalise is an Americanism; I would prefer ‘taken to hospital’ or ‘treated in hospital’ (not ‘rushed to hospital’).
Huntington’s disease: This used to be called Huntington’s chorea. Note: Not Huntingdon’s.
inoculate, not innoculate
Latin names: Every living thing which has been identified has a two-part (or binomial) name, which conventionally is italicised, eg Homo sapiens. The first part is the genus and is capitalised, eg Homo, and the second is the species, eg sapiens, which is lower case, even if it is named after the person who discovered it, eg darwinii. A binomial name may be shortened to the initial cap and the second word, eg H. sapiens, if it is a second reference or part of a list all beginning with the same initial. Tyrannosaurus rex should be shortened to T. rex, not T-Rex or T.Rex. I think it would be ok not to italicise familiar terms such as C.diff and E.coli. There should be a space between the full point and the second name (E. coli), but perhaps with the coming of the dotcom age, it seems to have become practice to leave out the space. Since this makes it easier to write headings, I suggest sticking to this new (though technically incorrect) style. This is an exception to the rule of not using full points after initials. NB There is occasionally a third name to differentiate between similar species. This should be italic and lower case.
legionnaires' disease, not legionnaire’s or with a cap.
leper: Do not use. Say ‘man/woman with leprosy’, ‘Mr X, who has leprosy’, or ‘leprosy patient’.
leukaemia, not leukemia
malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes. It is not a virus or a bacterial infection.
Munchausen’s syndrome and Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy: These medical conditions, in which the patient pretends to be ill, or induces symptoms in another person, are named after Baron Munchhausen, a noted teller of tall tales. Note that the medical term has only one ‘h’.
phosphorus/phosphorous: phosphorus is the element, as in ‘phosphorus bomb’, phosphorous is the adjective derived from it.
program, not programme, for computers. Also disk for computers, not disc.
prostate is a gland which often causes trouble for older men. It is frequently mis-spelled as prostrate, which means lying on one’s front.
psychiatry is a branch of medicine dealing with mental and emotional disorders, and a psychiatrist is a doctor; psychology is the science of mind and behaviour, and a psychologist is an academic.
sac/sack: a sac is the technical term for a bag-like structure in a body or a plant; sack is the word for a large bag or being fired.
sanatorium, sanatoriums (plural) not sanitorium.
sexually transmitted infection (STI) has replaced the older term ‘sexually transmitted disease’ (STD) and the even older ‘venereal disease’.
silicon/silicone: silicon is the element from which glass and computer chips are made (lower case except Silicon Valley), silicone is a synthetic material used in breast implants (lower case).
suffering/victim: See entry in Political Correctness.
syndrome: A condition or disorder characterised by a specific collection of symptoms, eg Down’s syndrome, Rett syndrome. It does not take a cap even when in conjunction with a name.
tendinitis, not tendonitis
thalidomide: Not a trademark, so lower case.
tranquilliser, not tranquiliser (and with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’).
tummy: A childish word. Use abdomen, stomach or torso. Incidentally when a woman is pregnant, it is not her ‘stomach’ which grows larger. The best way round this is usually to use ‘bump’.
twins: The source of many pitfalls. Twins result from one fertilised egg splitting, in which case they are identical, or from two eggs being fertilised by different sperm at around the same time, in which case they are ‘fraternal’ or non-identical twins. (Fraternal applies to boys, girls, or one of each.) Please do not point out that boy and girl twins are non-identical, or say ‘the twins, who both turn 14 on July 1’. And never say ‘two twins’. All these have been done, many times.
triplets and more: In the same way, these may be the result of egg splitting or multiple fertilisations, or a combination of both processes. For example triplets may result from a fertilised egg splitting in two and then one of those splitting again, or from one egg splitting plus a second egg being fertilised. Siamese twins: This seems rather old-fashioned now; the more acceptable expression is ‘conjoined twins’.
verruca: That nasty foot thing (a sort of wart). Note that the Roald Dahl character is Veruca Salt.
vocal cords, not chords. They are literally string-like.