Neville Goodman: Drawbacks and deadlines

neville_goodmanDrawback started life as excise duty paid back when goods were exported, but few doctors now writing of drawbacks are likely to realize that. There are over 5000 drawbacks on PubMed®, the first in 1916. It is a nice neat word, shorter than the literal disadvantage. But drawback is often replaceable by problem: …the algorithms overcome the drawback [problem] of hard thresholds; and sometimes not necessary at all: its use was discontinued because of a major drawback of causing teratogenicity is better as its use was discontinued because it was teratogenic. Drawbacks, like effort, series, and conferences are rarely anything other than major.

Often, the drawback phrase can simply be replaced by but: …the sphere provides structural opportunities but poses the drawback of dealing with a large number of stereoisomers. Leaving aside whether it is possible to pose a drawback, excising poses the drawback of dealing leaves …the sphere provides structural opportunities but with a large number of stereoisomers. The use of the conjunction but implies a contrast, and so the reader knows that the stereoisomers are a problem. There are quite a number of drawbacks in articles about surgical flaps, in which tissues are literally drawn back, and the word is then better avoided.

Deadline is of US civil war origin, meaning a line around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner was liable to be shot. It took 60 years for its modern-day use to be recorded – and for length thus to be converted into time, just 15 years after Einstein converted mass into energy – and it is difficult to think of any single-word substitute. The committee’s deadline is the end of the month is neater than The committee have to decide by the end of the month. Deadline is a word for titles and headlines – one third of the entries on PubMed® are in the titles of articles – but the word is in danger of losing its sense of urgency if it is used merely to mean the time when something is due to happen, or is going to be completed: The deadline for the registration of cases… is better as The last date for…. The sixth week after injury is probably the deadline for surgical repair… is not right: patients differ too much to be so dogmatic, and Surgical repair should probably be done by the sixth week is better. Many of the uses of deadline on PubMed are from researchers for whom English is an additional language (EAL). They pick up the broad meaning of English words, but not the nuances. When they use the words for those broad meanings, the nuances are lost to everyone.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that my only competing interest is my co-authorship of a book about medical English.

Neville Goodman is a retired consultant anaesthetist and a writer, and co-author of a book on medical English.