I'm reading now a book (which was written by a non-native English speaker) that states under the title of the topic:

"general plan of structure of the digestive tube"

The chapter there explains and describes the structure of the digestive system, and I think that the using of "plan" is relevant for buildings rather than anatomy. Isn't it?

Is it acceptable to use "plan" in this context, or it's a mistake?

  • I can't tell whether "plan of structure" is a term of art or merely an awkward phrasing. Assuming it means anything cogent, and is not a term of art, I would prefer to phrase it "general plan of the structure of the digestive tube" ... otherwise it sounds like it was written by a native Russian speaker or some other non-native.
    – Robusto
    Oct 27, 2016 at 0:27
  • I agree with Robusto here. Generally, a non-native speaker would get their technical terms right, but to write like a native speaker in terms of grammar and style is much, much harder. Oct 27, 2016 at 0:33
  • That's true it was written by a native Russian speaker. Nice guessing. but I forgot to put one article which was in the original sentence. Oct 27, 2016 at 0:33
  • "Plan" is commonly used in this context; see, e.g. "...two-legged (bipedal) posture, a fact that has greatly modified the general mammalian body plan." (Encyclopædia Brittanica) Oct 27, 2016 at 1:57
  • 1
    "General plan of structure of the digestive tube" is a perfectly idiomatic and expected topic heading in a work on anatomy. It wouldn't be out of place in any such text written by a native English speaker. Oct 27, 2016 at 2:30

2 Answers 2


Yes, using "plan" (or "design") is acceptable in biology. Perhaps an anti-theist would object on the basis of there being no planner. But that is like objecting to the use of the word "creature", implying that it is a created thing. If it makes one feel better, think of the "plan" as being the inevitable result of natural selection. (I do not know of the OP is anti-theist or not. This is only trying to explain why "plan" is not unacceptable.)

I would phrase the topic title differently.

  • General Structural Plan of the Digestive Tube

The phrase "general structure" would describe what is there, and where. "General structural plan" describes what, where, why, and how.


It is appropriate to use "plan" here, but it looks slightly odd to me as a native speaker and holder of a B.S. in Biology in this specific context. As noted in comments, phrases like "mammalian body plan" are not only common but are the accepted scientific terms across the field and especially in anatomy. "Design" is commonly used in this context in the field (in my experience and observation, but I have never focused on anatomy or physiology, where this usage of "plan" is standard).

Outside of anatomy and physiology, a plan generally implies intent from a planner making decisions in advance to support some specific outcome. Similarly, a design implies a designer but the implication is less strong than with plan. Scattering paint randomly across a canvas might produce a pleasing design, but would never produce a plan, despite the actual result being neither planned nor designed.

Evolution operates on existing structures or processes and favors certain changes over others in different environments, leading (in very, very general terms) to structures that are effectively designed to operate in a specific way (or ways) for a specific purpose (or purposes). When there is a single structure, like a digestive tube, that has (essentially) a single variant, it is "designed" in the sense that evolutionary pressures favored that one variant and not others. But this is an unguided process that does not require intelligence or intent.

In summary, a biological structure has a plan/design that describes its actual structure: what components it has, where they are, how they operate together, etc. You can describe a biological structure as being designed or having been designed, such as for a particular purpose, but trying to describe that same structure as being planned or having been planned for that same purpose would sound odd. If you are using "plan" in this field as a noun, you may be (and probably are) using it correctly. Using "plan" as a verb in this field is probably incorrect.

  • General plan is a translation from French. It is most likely not English at all....
    – Lambie
    Aug 16, 2017 at 14:32

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