An Open Question to FullyVetted Readers and Pet Lovers Everywhere: How Much is Too Much Vetspeak?
"Vetspeak" — as in, that canting language veterinarians will often unwittingly adopt while in the process of explaining what is ailing your pet. Whenever it is raised, this is a topic that always begs the questions: "Do I not offer enough?" and "How much is too much?"
I know what you’re going to say: "But it’s not just veterinarians!" Yes, I too know from past experience. While sitting with elderly family members in hospital rooms, I have experienced physicians who sometimes employ the kind of words that sail ineffectually over patients' heads. Attorneys and accountants baffle (bulls---?) us with their jargon as well. It's commonplace, but that still in no way exonerates anyone who should be striving for simplicity of expression in the interest of clear communication.
As a veterinarian, I’m often in a position to consider this subject. That’s because in my capacity as a clinical practitioner I sometimes find myself sweating to make myself understood. That’s when clarity really counts.
People rely on me for clarity of exposition for the sake of rational decision making. Their pets’ health depends on whether my words are clinical enough to convey the exact message (and not sound condescending), but not so science-y that they’re not captured for processing.
As a veterinary writer, however, I find I get less leeway. Though I can always tool and retool what I write so that I get multiple shots at achieving the kind of clear communication I seek (and here I must apologize for not always getting there), I definitely source more complaints.
The way I’ve seen it in the past, whatever people glean from what I write is generally a bonus. My posts shouldn’t be any pet owners’ primary source for healthcare information. Yet that doesn't stop a lot of readers from berating my use of the English language or claiming that I irresponsibly spread misinformation.
Case in point: some have suggested I go out of my way to "vetspeak" in unintelligible SAT words.
And then there was the Miami Herald reader who came after me with all guns a-blazing because I used the verb "predate" (a well-accepted alternative for "prey upon" in biological circles) in a column on cat-on-wildlife violence. This great big vocabulary meanie referenced one dictionary to prove her point that "predate" means "to come before," and that my lapse (and that of my idiot editor) is a perfect example of why newspaper quality is on the decline.
Which is why I put her in her place with an e-mail that was more a seizure of snark than anything else, after which I felt badly. If I’m not being understood even by those who read the paper with a red pen, what hope do I have against an army of high school-level readers? Because let’s face it, that may not be you, but it’s one heck of a lot of people in the U.S.
All of which got me to thinking: I try hard not to condescend to my clients or to my readers. Without sounding all high and mighty, I do try my best to keep the level (and yes, sometimes the vocabulary) of discourse high, whether it’s here or in the exam room. Anything less is disrespectful, I reason.
Which is also why I’ll often go out of my way to recommend websites and other supplementary reading. That way, people can learn at their own pace and take away what they need. For me, that’s the easiest long-term solution to the issue of "vetspeak" in my clinical life.
But is that fair? Knowing that so many people do go to USA Today, The Miami Herald and PetMD for info — sometimes at the suggestion of veterinarians like me — does it not behoove me to write in a more clinically relevant and less "vetspeaky" way? What do you say? Should I tone it down?
And now back to the original question: How much "vetspeak" is too much, and where does a veterinarian draw the line?
Dr. Patty Khuly