Fixing terminology

David R. Hershey dh321 at PGSTUMAIL.PG.CC.MD.US
Wed Apr 23 23:03:48 EST 1997

Richard Storey had a fine series of articles in the American Biology
Teacher (ABT) about textbook errors and misconceptions. His first article,
May 1989, dealt with photosynthesis and included the light-dark reaction
confusion. A plant terminology article in ABT or BioScience might do some

The American Society of Agronomy has a glossary of terms that they update 
periodically to try to bring some uniformity to definitions. Unlike 
most botany texts, plant physiology texts usually seem to lack a 
glossary. Perhaps that contributes to the problem. 

The problem of overuse of terminology in biology teaching is difficult to
attack because it has become a tradition. One semester I tried to discuss
mitosis without the stage terminology - prophase, metaphase, etc. - but
did not find it satisfactory. Having students remember the concept is more
important than just memorizing the term, but the term is useful if you do a 
literature search and as a way of remembering the concept. 
So many of the terms we use in botany teaching are virtually never used 
in day-to-day language or they have different meanings in everyday 
language than in botany, e.g. fruit and herb. We make a big deal about 
monocot/dicot differences but I have never heard anyone say something 
like "My your monocots look lovely today."

David R. Hershey

Snail mail: 6700 Belcrest Road #112, Hyattsville, MD 20782-1340

Adjunct Professor, Biology/Horticulture Dept.
Prince George's Community College, Largo, MD 20772-2199

Email: dh321 at


On 21 Apr 1997, Ken Klemow wrote:

> Ross Konig wrote:
> >There are many words that need to be fixed in plant
> >physiology in similar ways (photoperiodism is usually
> >noctoperiodism, abscisic acid should have been named dormin,
> >dark reactions can only operate in daylight, etc.).
> >
> I heartily agree with this.
> One of my own pet peeves with terminology involves photosynthesis.  I
> despise the terms "light" and "dark" reactions because it gives students an
> erroneous feel for what is happening.  Instead, I prefer the terms
> "light-dependent" vs "light-independent" phases, and indeed have taught
> those terms to my students for the past dozen years.
> Interestingly, our department hired a second botanist, who is teaching
> photosynthesis as part of our first-semester introductory sequence.  Much
> to my chagrin, he insists on using the light and dark reaction terminology.
> When we discussed the relative merits of the terms during a lab prep
> session, he refused to change, noting that the "light reaction / dark
> reaction" terminology is "standard".  He argued that those are the terms
> that Calvin, Warburg, and Bjorkman used, and therefore we should continue
> to teach them. The discussion became rather "spirited", and led to some
> frayed nerves.
> To address Ross's question, how do we "fix" bad terminology?  It seems that
> we need some system to (1) decide on some standards for terminology (beyond
> nomenclature of organisms and molecules), and (2) effectively educate all
> educators about the terms so that we don't have some students learning the
> "accepted" terms, while others continue to learn the obsolete terms.
> As an aside, I could anticipate some postings from individuals who maintain
> that terminology is unimportant altogether, and we shouldn't get so hung up
> on that facet of biology.  To those individuals, I recommend an essay
> written by Mark Twain in "A Tramp Abroad", dealing with hitching horses.
> That essay, with some commentary, is included in the introduction to Agnes
> Chase's "First Book of Grasses" published in 1964 by the Smithsonian.
> How do we proceed?
> Ken K.
> Kenneth M Klemow, Ph.D.
> Department of Biology
> Wilkes University
> Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766
> (717) 831-4758
> kklemow at

More information about the Plant-ed mailing list