When Being Plain Isn’t All It Seems

You hear a lot of talk these days about using Plain English, particularly in business or technical writing. Yet there are many things in everyday life that on the surface seem to be written in Plain English but upon closer examination are not.

My neighbour, Grace, is in her late seventies and was born in Italy. Although she has lived here for over fifty years, she still has trouble understanding written English. I can’t say I blame her, some English usage is downright confusing.

Grace’s daughter is an integral part of her life but she has gone away for the weekend, so she asked me if I would keep an eye on her Mum for the next few days. This afternoon we encountered a problem with the written word which I was hoping you, my most knowledgeable blogging friends, could help me with.

Grace was put on new medication this week. By the looks of things she takes myriad medication. I am not quite sure what the new medication is for but the directions are a little confusing. She has to take two tablets in the morning every three days.

She took the medication for the first time on Wednesday. Neither she nor I are sure if the next dose is due today or tomorrow. Does every three days mean – take the medication again on the third day or take the medication after three days have passed?

If it means take it on the third day, then it is due today. If it means take it after three days have passed, it is due tomorrow.

I rang the doctor. It was his day off. The nurse thought the medication was probably due today but told me to ring the pharmacist just to be sure. The pharmacist told me it was due tomorrow. I don’t want to make a mistake with this because it also says on the bottle in scary bold print DO NOT OVERDOSE.

So what does every three days actually mean?

Take it on the third day?

Or take it on the fourth day?

We decided to go with the pharmacist and take it tomorrow. The nurse says she will get the doctor to call Grace first thing in the morning to clarify. I hope he has a better understanding of Plain English than I do. Sheesh.

17 thoughts on “When Being Plain Isn’t All It Seems

  1. If she took it Wednesday morning, I would count exactly 3 days from then, making it Saturday morning. Taking it today would only make it two days but you’re right. it’s terribly confusing.


  2. I’m with Romany Angel, but I can see how it’s incredibly confusing. You would think something as important as medicinal instructions would be explained more clearly.


  3. I would have done what you did. This is why I hate medication.
    Couldn’t the nurse have rung the doctor? Or looked in a file? Or the doctor on call should have known the nature of the medication… sounds like a lazy dr. office to me.



  4. Wow, that’s a tough one Sel. How kind of you to help this neighbour out but it must be disconcerting to be left with drug questions. It seems that the med. personnel could have done a much better job in assisting but I’m not surprised by their answers. I’ve been through similar scenarios with a family member.

    Hugs, G


  5. ROMANY:
    That’s what I thought, but Grace seemed to think it was due Friday. These things always happen to me when I look after people. I looked after the kids of a friend of mine a while back and they both came down with high fevers. Seems their Mum knew they were sick beforehand but didn’t want to cancel her weekend away. Very naughty….

    It should be clearer than it is, for sure. What bothers me is that the nurse and the pharmacist gave different advice. Who do you believe?

    Spot on. If they say take every 72 hours it’s obvious what to do. I don’t understand doctors or pharmacists, either. My pharmacist always says the generic brands are the best and pushes them on me; but often they don’t work, particularly for things like asthma. It is quite annoying.

    They just weren’t helpful at all. The nurse was quite condescending as if she couldn’t believe how stupid I was. I was just being cautious. There are some medications where you have to be really strict with the dosage. So frustrating!

    I don’t mind helping anyone out – but in the future, please, no drug problems…

    I have had a lot of problems with meds with my family too. Seems one of the meds my hubby’s cardiologist put him on was not meant to be taken for more than 6 months. The pharmacist was up in arms about it. I checked with our GP and she sided with the pharmacist and gave the cardiologist a good talking to. He said he’d made a mistake. And we put our lives in the hands of these people…..


  6. i don’t get how (seemingly) something so straight forward gets so complex – and medics sadly sometimes do have a way of making us feel like pillocks – mind you, that does come from a an englishmen who is quite plain – and ironically has a sister who is a doctor!!!

    hope all is well now


  7. I think it should have said ‘Every 72 hours’. Especially if she got on a flight to London … I asked my doctor about this first time I flew to Adelaide after the medication had been prescribed, for me and she said disregard the days on the bubble pack … take one every 24 hours.

    BTW, did you ever come across the well-known jam, which instructed you to ‘Pierce lid with a pin, then push off’ ?


  8. PAUL:
    So nice of you to drop by. The medics do make us feel inadequate, for sure. As it turns out the meds were due today (Saturday) so every 3 days means every 72 hours. Why didn’t they just say that in the first place??

    Taking medication can be so confusing. And downright dangerous, IMO.

    I remember that jam. I’m sure people lost fingers trying to get it open. Just crazy!


  9. I know the feeling. I just got prescribed with a medication lately and reading the accompanying instructions is like reading a legal fineprint. But I personally would rather miss a day than take dose a little too early. After Heath Ledger, I was pretty freaked out about this.


  10. This very morning, a forum I contribute to received a Press release about a festival which is to occur bi-annually. Most of us took it to mean it takes place every two years, BUT when someone enquired, he was told no; it happens every six months.

    One of our members (he’s a Ph.D, and lectures in English, so he should know) says the usage is quite correct … for an event that happens every two years, the correct word is ‘biennially’.

    Oh, for a language you don’t need a Ph. D to understand!


  11. Whew! I think you are an amazingly kind and dedicated friend, Selma. Thank Goodness all has turned out well. And yeah! Why didn’t the meds just say “Every 72 hours”…?Geez.


  12. CHRIS:
    You really can’t be too careful with some meds. I agree. And the instructions are just a minefleld of ambiguities. Who writes that stuff?

    Totally. Poor Grace was in a state about it!

    That is confusing. Maybe ‘twice a year’ would be the best way to put it!

    I know. These doctors. Honestly!!!


  13. If you read all the warnings on medication it’ll make you never want to take any of them for any reason. The worst is all the legalese that our lawsuit-happy culture creates. It’s all about defending someone against a suit, and so is written in the most obtuse way possible. Plain English can be as rare as common sense in some cases. Half my job is to interpret my industry’s gobldygook for non-specialists.


  14. RICHARD:
    That must be a trying part of your job. Legal jargon is probably the most confusing of all. Speaking of warnings on meds – my doctor tried to get me to take some new meds to boost my iron levels the other day. I was fine with it until I read the possible side effects, one of which was ‘anal leakage.’ I don’t think so. I can handle most things, but not that. 😯


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