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What is a professional?

by Mark Lamendola

Look at the list below, and see if any of the items belong in a definition of what a professional is:

  • Someone who takes pride in his or her work
  • Someone who does a good job
  • Someone who is ethical
  • Someone who believes in good customer service
  • Someone who is highly trained and qualified

If you are like most people, you chose all five items as belonging. However, none of those five fit in the definition of what a professional is. Many people misuse the word professional. Because the word has such positive connotations when used as an adjective (e.g., "You did a professional job"), people have come to misuse professional in its noun form.

By definition, a professional:

  • Does not work with tools (though cosmetologists, dentists, engineers, and doctors stretch this)
  • Is licensed by the state

The word is transforming as occupational lines blur. A professional was originally "one who professes." That description included:

  • Teachers
  • Clergy
  • Accountants
  • Attorneys
  • Doctors
  • Engineers

When states licensing entered into the picture, cosmetologists were added to the ranks. Licensed contractors, however, work with tools (though the ones holding the license might not actually do so in this day and age), so are not professionals.

To keep things clear and prevent misunderstandings, use the noun "professional" in reference to white collar folks who are licensed by the state. If you want to compliment someone who is not in that group, use the adjective form. Instead of saying John the bricklayer is "a real professional" (he’s not), say, "John is professional." This may sound picky, but it’s correct use of the word.

Note also, that professionals—because of their state licensing—are held to higher standards of liability. They can have their license revoked, which means they can no longer legally practice what they were doing for a living. If John does a lousy job of bricklaying, you can sue him and you can sue his company. But, you cannot get the state to keep John from laying bricks. If he loses his contractor’s license, he can work for another licensed contractor. That is a key difference between a professional and everybody else.

Anyone who practices a trade, profession, or craft is a practitioner. These folks fall into three groups:

  • Skilled trades, tradesmen, journeymen, and apprentices
  • Licensed or Registered professionals
  • Skilled craftsman, craftsman, and apprentices

Other groups include:

  • Unskilled labor
  • Students
  • Hobbyists

While no real harm is done by calling a non-professional a professional, you are implying certain conditions (such as the state’s ability to bar further practice) that do not exist. If you want to compliment someone who is not a professional, use a word that has real meaning. You can refer to John the Bricklayer in ways that actually say something, like calling him conscientious or trustworthy. You can even say he does a professional job—but don’t call him "a professional."