Anatomical Terminology

Mastery of anatomy includes using correct terminology to describe the location of structures.  As background for this assignment, read Chapter 1: The Language of Anatomy of your textbook (pages 12-21).

There are several different categories of anatomical terminology that you will need to master to learn gross anatomy. These terms start with the body in anatomical position; the body is erect with feet apart and palms facing forward with thumbs pointing away from the body). Right and left sides are used to refer to the body being viewed and not your own. Directional terms allow us to explain where one body structure is in relation to another (the list of directional terms that you must know is found in Table 1.1 of your textbook). Regional terms are used to designate specific areas within the major divisions of the body (axial = main axis of body including head, neck and trunk; appendicular = appendages). Finally body planes and sections refer to what structures are found in particular sections or slices of the body. MRI and CT scanning images come to mind when you think of sectioning.


Part 1:  Directional Terminology

Directional terminology describes the location of an anatomical structure in relation to a reference structure and is a very useful way to explain where something is located in the body.  Directional terminology assumes the body is in anatomical position; body up straight, feet facing forward and slightly apart, arm at side with palms facing forward.  When the body is in this position, directional terms can be used to describe the location of any structure in the body.  Proper use of directional terminology includes the name of the structure and it relative position to another structure. 

Watch the following video (the music is a bit loud, but it does a cute job of illustrating each of the directional terms.


Directional term


Superior (cranial)

Above; toward the head (pelvis is superior to the femur: thigh bone)

Inferior (caudal)

Below; toward the lower part of the body (neck is inferior to the head)

Ventral (anterior)

In front of; toward the front of the body (sternum is ventral to the lungs)

Dorsal (posterior)

In back of; toward the back of the body (vertebral column is dorsal to the liver)


In the middle; toward the midline which runs from superior to inferior equidistant from the left and right sides (nose is a medial structure on the face)


On the outer left or right sides; away from the midline (shoulder is lateral to neck)


Between a more medial structure and a more lateral structure (requires two reference points; one more medial and one more lateral; eyes are intermediate to the nose and ears)


Closer to the body trunk (this term is used in the limbs; knee is proximal to ankle)


Further away from the body trunk (also a good term to use for the anatomy of the limbs; elbow distal to shoulder)


Toward the body surface (epidermis is superficial to the dermis)


More internal than the body surface (hypodermis is deep to the dermis and epidermis)


You will need to have accurate command of each of these terms to read the gross anatomy in your textbook.  Practice writing a sentence describing the location of a body part using these terms and reference points. 


Part 2: Regional Anatomical Terminology

Regional terms are used to name specific regions of the body where structures are located. See figure 1.7 of your textbook for the detailed list. Many of the important bone landmarks and muscle attachment points include regional terms.  Knowing the regional terms will make learning the skeletal muscular anatomy easier.  The important terms that you might not be familiar with that we will use in this course are listed below


Anterior Regional term











Point of shoulder






Front of elbow






Anterior knee






Posterior Regional term





Back of head; base of skull


Spinal column


Shoulder blade


Back of elbow




Between hips




Back of knee




Sole of foot

I recommend finding a family member or partner that you can spend time reviewing and identifying each of these regions with.

Part 3: Anatomical Terminology Exercise

Because we are 3 dimensional, there are 3 different planes (sagittal, frontal and transverse) that the human body can be sectioned on. The ability to interpret sections made through the body is important in clinical sciences especially for evaluation of non invasive imaging results. If you are finding the planes of section difficult there is an excellent tutorial from the Visual Human Project that might help.



There is also a short free online course available at Insight Medical (you need to give your email to sign in and then choose Anatomical Directions to view the course. it has a good description of each of the planes and has a slider to see how you can slice through the body using each of the planes.


For your assignment, purchase 3 potatoes and decorate them in some way that orients you to what is anterior/posterior, superior/inferior and lateral/medial (e.g., give them eyes, ears, arms, legs, mouth, hair, noses).  Photograph your subjects and then cut the first “potato person” using a coronal section. Cut the second “potato person” using a sagittal section and the third with a transverse cut.  Photograph the post slice images and post them with the uncut images to the LabNoteBook.

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