How to Spell Brand and Generic Drug Names Correctly
17 September, 2020
The names that we give to drugs share some important features: they’re long, difficult to spell, not recognized by spell checkers, and kind of weird. So if you work in medical writing or editing, how can you handle them without melting your brain?
Generic Names: Commonly Uncommon
There are two kinds of names for commercial medications: brand names (for example, Tylenol, Crestor, or Motilium) and common names, also known as generic names (for example, acetaminophen, rosuvastatin, or domperidone). It’s important not to get confused: “generic” can also refer to versions of drugs made by manufacturers other than the original after the patent protection has expired, but the “generic name” or “common name” of a drug is the name of the active ingredient, even in brand-name medications. So, for instance, Crestor is a brand-name medication made with the active ingredient rosuvastatin along with several inactive ingredients that help deliver it to your body; since its patent protection has expired, you can also buy generic versions that are not labeled “Crestor” and are just sold under the name “rosuvastatin.”
Common names tend to be uncommon-looking words like these (do not attempt to pronounce them out loud if you’re at work):
The names on that list are made up (to protect the guilty), but they’re based on real names. And if you work in medical communication, you know that the real ones can be even more difficult to get right!
Drug common names are made up according to certain rules. For instance, drugs with names ending in -statin are cholesterol-lowering medications, the ones ending in -mab are monoclonal antibodies (don’t ask if you don’t need to know), and the ones ending in -azole are antifungals, except for the ones ending in -prazole, which are proton pump inhibitors to treat acid reflux—oh, except for the ones ending in -piprazole, which are a kind of antipsychotic.
But beyond that, by design, they all look nothing like ordinary English words. Which means you can’t rely on reflex to spot errors—you have to look close.
Brand New and Quirky
Drug brand names are also quirky, but not in the same way. They tend to look like this sort of thing (again, made up but not far from reality):
They don’t have to follow any specific patterns, but the manufacturers want them to be unique and catchy (hence heavy use of letters that are worth a lot of points in Scrabble: X, J, Q, Z, and K—also V), and they want them to be effective. That means that they often have particular endings that sound scientific, such as -ol, -il, -id, -ine, and -in, and they’re nearly always two or three syllables. But it can also mean that they sound like things that are relatable or aspirational to the people they want to use them: Viagra (sildenafil), for instance, sounds like a blend of vitality and Niagara (because it is); Flomax (tamsulosin) treats prostatic hyperplasia, which can cause difficulty in urinating; Motilium (domperidone) helps food move better through your digestive system; and several levonorgestrel-based contraceptives have brand names that could be women’s names (such as Alesse, Esme, Jaydess, Kyleena, and Mirena).
Another thing they all have in common is that you do not want to misspell them. Especially if the manufacturer is your client (or your employer).
Science or Magic Spelling?
The goal of medical writing and editing is to communicate science. Time spent checking the correct spelling of “rotflumolast” (wait…) is time not spent thinking about data or the scientific story that you need to communicate. The problem is that some of the tools of the trade don’t work well for drug names. Many drug common names aren’t in the dictionary, and if you’re working in MS Word, it only takes a few drug common names to make your document look like it’s been invaded by squiggly red caterpillars. Far from helping, spell check can sometimes even get in the way of seeing differences in spelling.
You can improve your spell check by adding each new name to the dictionary. But watch out to make sure you add the right version and not one that’s off by a letter! And have you ever tried to transfer a Word spelling dictionary to a colleague? You’ll probably end up having each person add each name one by one.
The Winning Formula
Imagine life without those red caterpillars in your face—a life where you can stop worrying about career-ending typos and focus on life-saving science. That’s why PerfectIt has a special feature that’s designed for drug names: Similar Words.
When you enter a term into the Similar Words check in PerfectIt, it looks for words that start and end the same, are a similar length, and have just a slight difference in the spelling. For instance, if you enter roftlomulast into the check, it will find—and ask you about—rotflmaolast, roltfamulast, ratflamolust, rotflolamust, and any of quite a few other inventive variations your fingers might inadvertently create. You can see how easy it is to add names with this free video tutorial.
Having PerfectIt is like having a busy little editorial assistant. PerfectIt checks the fiddly bits of spelling so you can focus on the science. And you can share and coordinate your in-house PerfectIt style sheet with everyone on your team—which is even better than having a real assistant run around telling people about updates.
If you want to skip past the dopmeridone—sorry, the domperidone—and go straight to the Dom Pérignon, click to try PerfectIt for free.