The Grammarphobia Blog

Do MDs misuse the verb “present”?

Q: I heard Pat joke on WNYC a few months ago that doctors are the only people who use the verb “present” incorrectly. Since I’m starting my residency in July, I was wondering if you could explain. I’d rather not make this mistake in my career.

A: The remark Pat made on the Leonard Lopate Show was that doctors are the only people who use “present” as an intransitive verb. This usage isn’t a mistake, but it’s largely confined to the medical profession.

A verb can be transitive or intransitive or both.

A transitive verb needs a direct object to make sense; we call it “transitive” because the action is being transmitted from the subject to an object.

An intransitive verb, on the other hand, doesn’t need an object to make sense.

Many verbs in English are used both transitively and intransitively. The verb “grow,” for example, can be transitive (“He grows dahlias) or intransitive (“Dahlias grow quickly).

And “give” can be used  transitively (“He gave a donation) or intransitively (“He gave already).  So can “see,” which is either transitive (“We saw it) or intransitive (“We saw clearly).

Some verbs are strictly one or the other. They’re either transitive (like “lay and “raise) or intransitive (like “be,” “die,” “fall,” “go,”lie,” and “rise).

For most people, “present” is solely transitive, even at a medical office: “The receptionist presented the dermatologist’s bill to me.

But doctors often use it intransitively too: “The head of the fetus is presenting” … “The patient presented in my office with symptoms of fibromyalgia.

The verb’s use in obstetrics dates back to the early 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For a fetus, to “present” means “to be positioned (in a particular way) for delivery.” And for part of a fetus, it means “to appear first at the mouth of the uterus during labour.”

The OED‘s earliest citation is from a translation of Pierre Dionis’s A General Treatise of Midwifery (1719): ”The Exercise they use near their Time occasions the Child to turn sooner that it ought, and to present less favourably.”

The more general medical meaning dates to the 19th century and is defined this way in the OED:

“Of a condition, symptom, physical sign, etc.: to show itself, to appear, to be manifest, to occur, esp. in a certain manner, position, etc. Of a patient: to come to medical attention, esp. with a particular symptom, etc.”

Oxford‘s first citation for this usage is from 1836, but it’s questionable. This more definite example is from A System of Medicine, edited by Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1897): “A periœsophageal abscess frequently presents laterally.”

So, the intransitive “present” has a past. Feel free to use it, especially among doctors, but be aware that the rest of us may find it a bit strange.

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