When I was a Master’s degree student at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, my mentor (George Ball) had a list of requirements for word use in theses.  He also included in this list reasons for each requirement.  George’s thoughts on these matters make sense, and I have absorbed some of these into my own list, which I now inflict upon my graduate students.

One of these is:  use “-ology” words appropriately. One might think to say “Be careful of the terminology you use”, but that in itself represents the same mistake. (“Terminology” is the study of terms, not the terms themselves.  So, let’s be careful of the terms we use.) In biology, the most frequent misuse of “-ology” words is to use them as if they referred to properties of organisms.

It is almost never correct to say something like “the ecology and biology of plants”.  Ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms, their environment, and each other; it is not a property of an organism.  Biology is the study of life. “Biology” is not the life cycle, food, and other traits of an organisms; it is the study of these and many other aspects of organisms.  (“Ecology and biology” is a particularly egregious phrase, as it implies that ecology is not a subdiscipline of biology.)  Similarly, plants don’t have “phenologies”; phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena.

These language problems aren’t restricted to biology.  We don’t buy technology, we buy computers, tablets, digital cameras, phones, etc.; technology is the study of such objects, not the objects themselves.  I could go on and on.

An “-ology” word describes a human endeavor, not a property of organisms.  If one is tempted to use an “-ology” word, one should mentally replace that word by the equivalent “study of” phrase, and see if it still fits.  For example, one might think about using the title “The biology and phenology of tiger beetles” for a paper about various aspects of tiger beetles.  If we replace the two “-ology” words with their meanings, we can see if the title makes sense:  “The study of life and the study of seasonality of tiger beetles”.   Well, it might make some sense, but I don’t think that’s what we meant to say, if we were talking about tiger beetles rather than about studying tiger beetles.   It would be better to use words that describe properties of tiger beetles, such as “The predatory habits and temporal dynamics of tiger beetles”.

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5 Responses to Terminology

  1. Do you have a suggestion for a word that can mean what we often mean when we say “ecology”?
    I find it hard to find another word that can be used to summarize: “the interactions that an organism or set of organisms have with their abiotic and biotic environment”

    Should we start saying the “eco” of an organism?

    • That’s a very good question. In a faculty discussion recently, we referred to it as “the thing ecologists study”, which of course is silly. I think one of the big reasons these “ology” words have become popular is that they are single-word shortcuts for a longer and more complex description of the focus of the discipline.

      • Dan Mays says:

        Hmm . . . Is this another example of “intellectual frass?” Raising objections (and attempting to hold others to that standard) without providing viable alternatives seems a bit vacuous.

      • I pointed out the general problem, and provided alternatives for a few examples. I can’t go through and enumerate an alternative for every possible case. For “ecology”, there will often be alternatives, but they are case-specific. For some words, there are general alternatives (e.g., “terms” instead of “terminology”), but not for “ecology”.

  2. Pingback: Where have all the left parentheses gone? | The Subulate Palpomere

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