“Being Careful Where We Place The Modifier In The Phrase”

So often we talk and use expressions were we know what we mean, and quite often the person we are immediately addressing in the conversation knows what we mean, but a casual observer might get the wrong mental picture or image just from the way we put the words together. 

Sometimes they are idiomatic or colloquial expressions that can’t be taken literally, such as “I’m all tied up right now.” Most of us aren’t actually physically restrained or bound when we say this. It just means that we are busy, but we offer a more colorful expression to convey this.

As aging in place professionals, we need to guard against using sloppy expressions ourselves so that people who hear and repeat what we say might begin to get it right. How often, for instance, do we hear about a disabled person when we really mean a person with a disability. Phrased the first way, the term disabled is an adjective that describes the person so that we would recognize that person if we saw them. A short person, a balding person, a large person, a tall person, a lightly complected person, or a thin person all describe common physical traits that are easy to identify.

Saying (or hearing someone else say) that someone is a disabled person means that the disability defines them and their personality. There is no way in hearing this to know what type of a limitation they might have, to what extent it is noticeable, or how it impacts their ability to function normally. It’s really a matter of the person (regardless of other noticeable physical traits such as weight, age, or stature) exhibiting or living with some type of disability rather than them being totally defined by their condition.

If someone was described as being wheelchair-bound or being confined to a wheelchair, could someone just hearing this expression form the mental picture that this person was somehow restrained against their will or could not move from their wheelchair when they wanted to or when someone offered to help them? How about saying that someone is living in a wheelchair? Do we expect that someone would be using this as some type of small dwelling? We mean that someone depends on using a wheelchair for mobility or that they are unable to get around on their own without the assistance of a wheelchair – or walker or other mobility devices.

Saying that someone is blind likely suggests a vision impairment, but it could also describe a lack of awareness or a state of cluelessness. Not being able to see is just a condition that this person has that we may not even realize when we meet them for the first time. The blindness doesn’t label or define them. It doesn’t change how we think of them. It’s just a characteristic they have.

If someone mentions that they wrecked their car versus they had an accident or that their car was involved in a wreck, do we expect that it is able to be driven or that it is ready for the scrapyard? Maybe it was received some damage but otherwise is still serviceable. A key difference in what we perceive. In the first instance, the vehicle is essentially destroyed. In the second, the car was involved in an incident but is not totally unusable.

We might say that we will create a “word document” when we mean that we will use the Microsoft Word app to write and create a document. Wouldn’t the document have words in it anyway? It’s not a word document (although how could it be anything else?) but rather a document prepared with Word. It’s our document to be precise.

We just need to be careful in describing someone or an event that we place the adjectives where they belong. Coming before the subject, the meaning is that the person, place, or other object being described is characterized by the condition reflected by the adjective. A rotten or spoiled apple (or other fruit) suggests that it is unusable and should be discarded. An apple with a rotten or spoiled spot in it means that the rest of it may be fine to use.

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