Chris F. Waigl chris at LASCRIBE.NET
Mon Apr 24 22:57:42 UTC 2006

On Mon, 2006-04-24 at 16:49 -0400, Laurence Horn wrote:

> >i recently read about a doctor who was interviewing a patient and
> >asked her if she had ever had an abortion.  she said no, but then the
> >doctor looked at the records he had and saw clear indications that
> >she had had two terminated pregnancies.  it turned out that the
> >patient used "abortion" to mean a deliberate termination of
> >pregnancy; she had had two miscarriages, which she would not have
> >described as "abortions".  surprisingly to me, the doctor was
> >surprised at this patient's usage.
> >
> >as you know, i have some interest in technical vs. everyday uses of
> >language.  but, stupidly, i failed to make a note about this story
> >and now can't recall where i read it.  anyone have any idea of the
> >source?

> no idea about the source, but the story suggests that a spontaneous
> abortion (which is what the patient had two of, evidently) is not an
> abortion, rendering "spontaneous" a non-intersective adjective.  of
> course, the patient may not have been willing to describe what she
> had as a spontaneous abortion either.  It would appear, then, that
> only a "therapeutic abortion" is a true abortion, just as (well, not
> maybe just as) only a "therapeutic massage" is an actual massage...

As opposed to a spontaneous massage?

It occurs to me that the sense of "have [an abortion]" is not the same
in the two cases (spontaneous abortion / miscarriage vs. voluntary
termination of a pregnancy): In the first, "have you ever had an
abortion [miscarriage]" asks about something that happened to the woman,
something she underwent involuntarily [actual examples from Google in a
medical context: "Have you ever had a sexually transmitted disease?",
"Have you ever had a menstrual period?", "Have you ever had a major or
minor stroke?", "Have you ever had an injury, like a sprain, muscle or
ligament tear [...]?", "Have you ever had an allergic reaction to
CRESTOR or any of the other tablet ingredients?"], while in the second,
_have_ is causative, and the question refers to procedures she might
have initiated [actual examples etc. pp.: "Have you ever had a breast
biopsy?", "Have you ever had a digital rectal examination?", "[H]ave you
ever had a body piercing (other than earrings)?", "Have you ever had a
mole removed?"].

In any event, "Have you ever had a miscarriage or a breast biopsy?"
sounds slightly non-parallel to me. It would therefore be interesting to
know if the question "Have you ever had an abortion?" was preceded by
questions about voluntary procedures/elective surgery.

Chris Waigl

The American Dialect Society -

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