Thursday, May 06, 2004

In which I diagnose a problem

Is it time to change to a more permissive definition of the word diagnose?

Some background: Some people object to the diagnosing of a person (She was diagnosed with cancer in 1990), saying only the disease can be diagnosed (Doctors diagnosed her cancer in 1990).

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993, published at, says: Diagnose is usually considered Standard with either a malady or a person as direct object: Physicians had diagnosed measles in the schools. Dr. Smith diagnosed Fred as having chicken pox. But some conservatives object to the use of a person as either direct object or subject of a passive diagnose, as in Fred's sister was diagnosed as having measles too, except in Conversational or Informal use, and some editors will not permit either use in Edited English.

Webster's and Merriam-Webster allow for the passive use. Most of the stylebooks I have don't mention the word, including the AP stylebook.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has an entry: "The disease, not the patient, is diagnosed. Do not write: She was diagnosed with cancer."

Bremner's Words on Words says: "A condition is diagnosed, not a person."

This is a word that I see used more often "wrong" than "right," however. And, much like host and contact, there is no quick replacement. One can always write around diagnose. But I don't always think the rewrites are better. No one is confused by "I was diagnosed with ADD," just as no one is confused by "I'm going to host the party" or "Contact the source by phone."

Is there a reason to maintain the distinction?


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