Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 34: A Question from the Field

When paramedics are helping a patient, communications must be clear and precise. So we thought it was very important when we got this message from Nick, a listener who is an Emergency Medical Technician—or EMT—at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis:
"There are two words that are often used but I believe they have different meanings. It has to do with describing a patient's mental status. It's very common that an EMT or a paramedic will say, 'The patient is alert and oriented.' It is also phrased as, 'The patient is alert and orientated.' Which is the correct word for this situation?"
It's quite common to hear both orient and orientate used in conversation, but Nick's message makes it all seem a bit more vital. Fortunately, it was not a life-or-death situation for anyone and we had time for some research.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the word orient as a noun is a literary term that refers to the East. It has a counterpart, occident, that refers to the West. Given those words, one definition of the word orientate found in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary means "to face or turn to the east". For example:
For Muslims in the Americas, it is customary to orientate when praying.
Given that orient has its directional meaning, it's not surprising that it later took on related meanings; specifically, to have an understanding of one's bearings, situation or surroundings. Think of orienteering—a popular activity for Scouts and Guides the world over.

It's important to note that in this sense, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English lists orientate as meaning the same as orient. So to answer Nick's question about which word is correct ... they both are. Interestingly, both words entered the English language from the same source, but at different times.

Michael Quinion is the author of the book Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths. He also maintains an excellent Web site called World Wide Words. Quinion addressed this question and it turns out that the word orient in the sense of "to get one's bearings" comes from the French verb orienter—or more accurately, the reflexive s'orienter—which means "to find or get one's bearings." According to Quinion, the word orient entered English usage from French in the 18th century; orientate, meanwhile, comes from the same French origin but entered English in the 19th century. Both are considered correct. Some people might be more accustomed to hearing one rather than the other, but it's simply a matter of taste. Fowler's Modern English Usage corroborates this.

And let's not forget another meaning of orient or orientate, which is "tailored to meet particular needs." Here are examples:
This magazine is orientated towards young people.
Aspen, Colorado is a very ski-oriented community.
Our company's approach to software design is user-oriented.
But getting back to Nick's question from the world of emergency services, it doesn't matter whether one is oriented or orientated; either way, it's good news for paramedics and patients alike.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary; Larousse's French-English/English-French Dictionary; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Birchfield; and Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths by Michael Quinion (sold in the United States under the title Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds)

Music from this Episode: "Fire" by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" by Vampire Weekend.

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