Tuesday 7 December 2010

To administer or not to administer?

Last week I attended an introductory lecture given by a colleague of mine on how best to do medical research in English. The lecture was part of a course entitled "English for Researchers in the Medical Profession" on which I co-teach with a couple of other lecturers.

Friday's talk, in particular, was about providing the students with the right keywords so they can retrieve information from databases such as PubMed and CINAHL as quickly and as accurately as possible. One of these words was the English verb to administer. My colleague claimed that this verb is different from to administrate and should not be confused with it. He insisted that the former is only used with the meaning of "giving someone a medicine or medical treatment", whereas the latter means "to manage or organise something".
But this can't be true! Don't you say, for example, "to administer justice"? Or "to administer the affairs of a company"? And what about "to administer a questionnaire"? Also, isn't administrate somewhat rarer than administer?

So, as always, I went and looked up both terms in my Oxford Dictionary of English (2005, 2nd edition edited by C.Soanes and A.Stevenson), and this is what I found:

As is evident from the above, the more common of the two terms is to administer and it CAN actually mean "to manage or be responsible for the running of a company, etc." To administrate, on the other hand, means the same as to administer (sense 1) and is first attested in English in the mid 16th century.

Not content with that, I then looked to administrate up in the Longman Exams Dictionary (2006) and I couldn't find it. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (2010) doesn't include it either, nor does its online version, which, on the other hand, does include to administer. (Read here.)

If we check in the British National Corpus, we only get 1 occurrence for administrate and 538 occurrences for administer. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, administrate comes up only 18 times, whereas to administer 1881.

I think there is enough evidence here to argue that EFL students at all levels should be made aware of the several meanings of the term to administer and that they shouldn't bother about its much rarer "synonym" to administrate.

Why should we teachers sometimes complicate things when they are not so complicated?

1 comment:

  1. To me the verb 'administrate' sounds decidedly odd: I would never use it (British English native speaker).
    Indeed, if the dictionary hadn't shown that it has a reasonable history, I would have guessed it was a recent back-formation!