Risk of Mortality: 100 percent!

Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor

Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor


I’m ranting. That’s what a word curmudgeon does. I am curmudgeon, hear me rant:


I’m begging anyone who edits or writes for a scientific publication not to use the word “mortality” when a simple death would do the job.


Until science or magic or a comprehensive and viable overhaul of the health care system (see: magic) enables human beings to live forever, we’re all mortal. Therefore, our individual and collective risk of mortality can never be less than 100 percent. Period. You can have mortality rates; yup, those are fine. Sometimes I grudgingly allow the word “mortality” to be used by itself to refer to the mortality rate (“mortality from all causes was 11 percent,” for example) or to describe mass dying (as in genocide), but in general, you can’t have a mortality risk. Or to be more precise, you can, and you do, but yours is exactly the same (100 percent) as everybody else’s, irrespective of health or wealth. Mortality doesn’t care when or how you die, just whether you do, and you do—or will.


The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, which I like a lot when it backs me up, made me laugh when I looked up “mortality.” Although it does list “death” as one of the possible meanings, it calls that meaning archaic (let’s call it dead):



Function: noun

Date: 14th century

1: the quality or state of being mortal

2: the death of large numbers (as of people or animals)

3archaic : death

4: the human race

5 a: the number of deaths in a given time or place b: the proportion of deaths to population c: the number lost or the rate of loss or failure



So what do we use instead? Personally, I like “death” and “dying.” No kidding. Here’s a handy-dandy example: “Once researchers controlled for drooping tongue and emotional bezoar, the patients’ risk of death

[or dying] from engorged navel dropped to 0.3 percent.” You might argue that our risk of dying is also 100 percent, but “mortality” carries that other pesky connotation, the one that speaks to our existence as temporal beings—the “quality or state of being mortal.” According to Webster’s (meaning number 4 above), mortality can also simply mean “the human race.” And lord knows that’s got a 100 percent chance of dying out.

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

2016-11-21T13:37:00+00:00 March 25th, 2009|Nursing|1 Comment

About the Author:

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

One Comment

  1. jm March 31, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Interesting observation. There are so many conventions in medical and scientific writing, but also in the speech of physicians and nurses in hospitals. Is it possible that those who work around death and dying all the time simply can’t bear to speak of it without euphemisms or jargon or at least a certain distancing formality? As editors, we may be unsympathetic to this tendency, which we see as inaccurate, but maybe we too would not want to speak of death all the time in a direct way around other researchers, patients, or others. We’d know it was there, but opt to keep our distance. Just some unsystematic thoughts from a colleague! -Jacob M., AJN senior editor

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