Learning a New Language

I’m editing a ton of news stories nowadays about the new coronavirus, which means I’ve had to quickly learn the particulars of the language used to correctly describe it.

A few tidbits for fellow grammar geeks:

  •   At first mention in a news story, the virus is referred to as ‘new’ or ‘novel’ because it is the newest member of a whole family of coronaviruses.
  •   COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus. (COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019.)
  •   According to The Associated Press, use ‘the’ before coronavirus: “She is concerned about the coronavirus.” In headlines, however, ‘the’ can be omitted.

Humorist Curtis Honeycutt, known as The Grammar Guy, reminded us in a weekend column that the words contagious and infectious are not entirely interchangeable.

  •    Contagious refers to something spread by direct or indirect physical contact from one host to another.
  •    Infectious means something is capable of causing infection or spreading rapidly to others.

So, some infectious diseases are not contagious – Lyme disease is the example he uses – but every disease that is contagious is also infectious.

Clear as mud?

The terms epidemic and pandemic also mean different things. Again, I defer to AP: “An epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide.” Another good description of the difference can be found at VeryWellHealth.com.

I got a kick out of The Grammar Guy using the term “global pandemic,” as AP says that’s redundant.

And finally, I’m listening and watching closely for the adjectives being used to describe this time in history. In a single day, I’ve read or heard that this is “a time of crisis,” but also: challenging, horrific, interesting, uncertain, unique and unprecedented.

My vote for the worst phrase (yet) was overheard in an interview with a governor – can’t recall which state, but he said, “When we come out the other end of this…”

I guess a tunnel could come to mind, but that wasn’t what popped into mine. Ugh.