That’s just semantics

This is one of those editorials where people will roll their eyes and say, “Only in the News & Review.” This editorial, though, like all editorials, is supposed to make people think, perhaps take some action. Many people will think it’s an editorial about grammar, and to some extent it is, but it’s also about how words and punctuation are used to control the way we human beings think about things.

In this example, we’re talking about health care, more precisely, health-care reform. Or the health-care industry. Or health-care debate.

That hyphenated use of health care is called a compound adjective. It’s when two words modify a noun, but accurate understanding requires that they be used together as one—each word must modify the noun independently in order for the hyphen to be excluded. “Small-business man” is a common example. We’re not talking about a small man. We are talking about a business man. We’re talking about a man who owns a small business.

Now, to take a short but relevant detour, we can all think of examples where policies are intentionally misnamed in order to make ignorant people reactively support them: Clean Air Act, Healthy Forest Initiative, PATRIOT Act. Most people don’t like to think too hard, so if you tell them black is white, they’re going to go for it.

People often don’t understand or care why they see “small-business man” in the newspaper. But language is deeply imbedded in their minds, and they understand the rules of grammar—even if they’ve never had a grammar class (or failed the boring ones they took).

What does “health care industry” say to you? It says “health industry” and “care industry.” Both words, “health” and “care,” have nice, positive connotative and denotative meanings.

And they’re both inaccurate and misleading in this context—and almost any context when they’re used together to talk about the pharmaceutical industry, medical practices and the insurance industry. (As long as we’re thinking along these lines: Health insurance industry? The industry does not insure health; if anything, it ensures sickness because it makes more money when people get sick.)

Health care reform? C’mon, we’re not talking about health reform, like quitting smoking or exercising more. We’re talking about regulating businesses that profit from our sickness, either by selling us pills (many not designed to cure the illness but to be taken for the rest of our lives) or protect us against medical bills that could send individuals into bankruptcy, which has a cascading negative effect on society.

If we’re going to talk about the country’s medical systems, we need to be honest and accurate in what we say. We’re either talking about financial institutions, medical practices or the pharmaceutical industry. Simply putting them all under one umbrella and then giving the topic a misleading name makes it more difficult to come to a negotiated point of agreement among all citizens of the United States.