Words and Terms with Double Meanings (in Everyday Language and in Academic Disciplines) as a Source of Misconceptions

Jan. 24, 2016

Dr. Tami Yechieli is the head of the graduate school at the Michlala - Jerusalem College

The main purpose of everyday language is to enable fast and economical communication among people from the same culture and context.
Everyday language is based on the premise that people participating in a discourse understand its context and are aware of language shortcuts and codes. Usually, therefore, no problems arise due to the fact that a term has more than one meaning (e.g., "table"—a piece of furniture and a chart) or that codes are used (e.g., "cell" instead of "cell phone").
Disciplinary languages are also means of communication; however, their formality and commitment to accuracy, clarity, and equivocality cause academic technical expressions (especially written ones) to be lengthy and without shortcuts.

Language in academic disciplines comprises two kinds of terms: academic technical or professional, discipline-specific terms (e.g., "heterozygote" and "homozygote" in genetics, "intertextuality" in literature, "sine" and "cosine" in trigonometry, etc.) and terms that have a meaning that differs from their everyday meaning.

A student encountering a technical term of the first kind (a term that is discipline-specific) in a written text, an oral lesson, or a lecture, is usually aware of the fact that he does not know its meaning.
If he is an experienced learner, he will probably consult a dictionary or lexicon within the given discipline (or click on Google and then on Wikipedia) to find the meaning of the term.
A teacher using such a term in a lesson will generally realize that this term is new to the students and will explain it to them.
Furthermore, in most cases, the students themselves will ask the teacher to define the term.
Every discipline, however, also contains everyday terms that have a different meaning in academic language and may cause problems for learners and teachers of the discipline.
A learner who encounters such a term might not realize that its technical meaning is different from its everyday usage, and might therefore misconstrue its meaning in a particular context.
A teacher using a term of this kind in the lesson might be unaware that students may embrace its familiar, colloquial usage rather than its technical, disciplinary meaning.

The following phrases all contain the term "gas" but with different meanings:
I filled up with gas (gasoline)
I cleaned the gas (the stove top)
I pressed on the gas (the car's accelerator)
My baby has gas pains (air trapped in the digestive system)
The gas escaped from the soda bottle (co2)

Note that there is only one technical meaning of the term "gas", namely, as one of the four fundamental states of matter (the others being solid, liquid, and plasma) (Wikipedia). A common misconception among young students is that all gases have an odor.

Another example of a term with a dual meaning is the term "fruit". Its everyday meaning is something sweet and organic that is served as a dessert. However, the botanic meaning of fruit is "the seed-bearing structure in angiosperms formed from the ovary after flowering" (Wikipedia).
Many students have difficulty in categorizing a cucumber or a tomato as a fruit because of the different everyday meaning.

I can testify from my own and my colleagues' teaching experience that many academic terms learned in school have a dual meaning and are therefore the source of many misconceptions. What can be done to prevent or minimize misconceptions resulting from this duality of terms?

First, teachers, teacher educators, and students should be aware of this phenomenon (as part of minimizing the effects of the "curse of knowledge"). Teachers should relate to this duality of terms explicitly in their lessons. Second, whenever such a term occurs in the classroom, the teacher should explicitly refer to its various meanings. A tool my colleagues, the students, and I have found very useful is a table such as the following:

The Term Everyday meaning Academic technical meaning
fruit Something sweet, of an organic source, which is served as a dessert. the seed-bearing structure
gas Depends on context. one of the four fundamental states of matter

Also, in order to draw the students' attention to this phenomenon, one of the assignments in my course (on the teaching of concepts) requires each student to find five dual terms and add them to a classroom thesaurus.

Updated: Jan. 25, 2016


Facebook comments:

Add comment: