The Grammarphobia Blog

Paradigm lost?

Q: I heard you mention on the air that you didn’t like the word “paradigm.” What’s wrong with it? I first learned of the word through reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. He uses “paradigm” to describe a conceptual framework that informs the way things are perceived and understood. Would you please clarify your objections?

A: My complaint is about the casual, mushy way that “paradigm” is used these days. It can mean an example, a model, a pattern, a standard, a framework, a prevailing viewpoint, a set of assumptions, and so on. And that doesn’t count all the times it’s mistakenly used for two entirely different words, “paragon” and “parameter.”

When the word “paradigm” first appeared in the 15th century, according to a Usage Note in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, it referred to an example or a pattern. For nearly 400 years, it has also referred to patterns of inflections in grammar. It wasn’t until the 1960s, Random House says, that scientists began using “paradigm” to mean a theoretical framework, as Kuhn apparently does in his book.

Again, I find the word “paradigm” too fuzzy. If you mean “model” or “pattern” or “framework,” why not say “model” or “pattern” or “framework”? Unfortunately, a lot of people like to dress up ordinary ideas with scientific-sounding words. They think of “paradigm” as a two-dollar word, but it’s only worth about twenty cents.