“Nurses don’t teach. They educate!” OK, but…. (A style update from the Word Curmudgeon)

I had a few comments but no death threats after my first post, about “nurse writers.” That fact gives me the courage to tackle another grammatical pet peeve of mine. Let me admit, up front, that probably no one else in the world cares about this, and no one else appears to have written about it. This could mean either that I’m really astute or completely wrong.

Education is central to what nurses do. Nurses educate. They work hard, as we do here at AJN, to elevate the image of nursing and nurses in the public eye (as well as the eyes of the medical community, policymakers, and politicians).

It’s understandable, then, that when nurses want to talk or write about something as central to nursing as patient education, they would choose the verb “educate” rather than “teach.”

Many of our writers would rather educate patients than teach them, and I don’t fault them for that.

However, in changing the verb from “teach” to “educate,” many writers (most, actually) don’t realize that the demands of the new verb are different from those of the old one. It’s okay to teach a patient about nasal hygiene, but it’s not quite as correct to educate that patient about nasal hygiene. The verb “educate” takes different prepositions: “on” and “in.” Here’s the rule I put in the AJN style guide:

• A person can be educated on a topic (such as nasal hygiene) or educated in a field (such as hygienics).
• A person shouldn’t be educated about anything.
Even the vaunted New York Times has been guilty: Push Urged to Educate Patients About Drugs.  (Of course, if no one else has written about this or cares about it, the Times isn’t really guilty of anything except not thinking the same way I do.)

And speaking (writing) of not thinking the way I do, or of my possibly being simply wrong, a senior editor at AJN says, by way of argument:

“I can’t find any source that recommends “on” or “in” over “about,” and dictionaries don’t point it out either, as they often do about which preposition is most commonly used; my usage searches show that “about” is more common on the Web and in NY Times articles than “on” or “in”; the verb “educate” literally means to lead out of….if you stop and think hard about it, any preposition is inaccurate with such an intransitive verb, since it represents a doubling of the preposition (“ex,” which means out, away from, out of) that is already embedded in the verb. If we have to use “educate” at all, I myself tend to favor “about” simply because that sounds less jargony to me of the two options, and may also be the regional usage I grew up with….”

Although I will argue that educate can be a transitive verb (taking an object, in most cases a person), I will admit that I may be barking up the wrong tree. But as long as I’m the style maven at the journal, I can still make (some of) the rules. That’s part of what being a word curmudgeon is all about. But please, feel free to agree with me or yell at me.

Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor

Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor

—The Word Curmudgeon (Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor) will provide occasional and crusty contemplations for the writing nurse, from a copyeditor’s  perspective.

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2016-11-21T13:37:46+00:00 March 23rd, 2009|nursing perspective|1 Comment
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

One Comment

  1. B. Conyers September 2, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Ahhhh…thank you for a wonderful article! As Director of Admissions I have been throwing a FIT with our nursing team regarding the use of the word “educate.” I finally sat down and googled the matter and was thrilled to find your article. No, you are not alone at all. Thanks for your article!

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