The Language Perfectionist: The Language Doctrine

In a recent news report, a think-tank executive was quoted as follows: “There is no Obama doctrine because the president is not doctrinaire.”

The remark might have been intended as a clever pun, but it’s confusing and misleading.

A doctrine is “a principle or body of principles.” Its literal meaning is neutral. Religious doctrines do exist, but doctrines are also found in philosophy, science, politics, law, and warfare.

In contrast, the adjective doctrinaire means “characteristic of a person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory.”

The word doctrine isn’t synonymous with dogma, which is “an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles.” (Definitions are from The American Heritage Dictionary.)

One might interpret the pundit’s comment above to mean that the president has no principles or beliefs. But that probably wasn’t what he intended, so he should have expressed himself more clearly.

Because the word doctrine can be associated with religion, it’s probably best avoided if you don’t want it to be misconstrued as meaning dogma or faith. Instead, use such words as belief, precept, premise, principle, tenet, or theory.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]
  • Sid

    Don, I don’t get this one. Is it because ‘doctrinaire’ is an adjective? By simply replacing the words with their definition, the sentence seems to mean what the speaker implied — “There is no Obama (body of principles) because the president is not (a person inflexibly attached to a theory).” So, my guess is that because doctrinaire implies a characteristic of such a person, this sentence is clunky.

    By the way, I enjoy your weekly missives in the ETR emails very much and usually follow what you’re trying to point out. Thank you.