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Grammar: Don’t Use “Woman” as an Adjective May 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
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Is it grammatically correct to speak of “woman doctors?”

“Woman” is not an adjective, but that fact does not mean it cannot modify a noun.  Nouns that properly modify other nouns are referred to as “noun adjuncts” or “attributive nouns.”  For example, “chicken soup” or “arms race.”

However, the use of “woman” as a noun adjunct is grating because there is an adjective (“female”) that almost always serves the same purpose.  One should never use a noun adjunct when a bona-fide adjective will do.

The only time “female” might not suitably substitute for “woman” is when one needs to qualify the noun not only as female, but also as adult and human.  I.e., one may prefer “woman friends” to “adult human female friends” (as distinct from, say prepubescent human male friends, or monotreme friends).

It is never correct to use “women” as a noun adjunct.  Hence, “women doctors” is as ungrammatical as “chickens dinners.”

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Comments»

1. Steve Kane - January 13, 2010

woman. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/woman

woman is the designation preferred by most modern female adults: League of Women Voters; American Association of University Women. Woman is the standard feminine parallel to man. As a modifier of a plural noun, woman, like man, is exceptional in that the plural form women is used: women athletes; women students.

2. male nurse - June 10, 2010

@Steve Kane:
Your comments don’t directly address any of the points made in the article.
Is the League of Women Voters a qualified arbitrator of English grammar?

Steve Kane - June 10, 2010

Yes, my response directly addresses the most strident point made, the only point addressing grammar rather than style: “It is never correct to use “women” as a noun adjunct. Hence, “women doctors” is as ungrammatical as “chickens dinners.””

rebutted by: “As a modifier of a plural noun, woman, like man, is exceptional in that the plural form women is used: women athletes; women students.”

True, the additional information was just an example of common, widely accepted usage among educated speakers.

3. The Cat's Meow - January 24, 2011

Thank you, Steve Kane, for clearing up this matter. I often find myself confused when trying to figure out if I should use “women friends” or “woman friends,” and you found the perfect reference to show why it should be “women friends” (not “women fiends” as I initially wrote!).

4. sactomike - May 7, 2011

I have long been troubled by the damage done to the language by well meaning folks who veer too far into political correctness (although, I can’t think of an example in which political correctness is “just right”). As a junior analyst in a renowned analytical organization in the early 1980’s my equilibrium was often disturbed by the use of the term “women analysts”. My only route back to balance was to speculate (pardon the pun) that this term must refer to gynecologists, no matter their gender.

5. Lysander - May 7, 2011

@sactomike: Great example (and pun)! If “women analysts” are women who perform analysis then a “market analyst” must be a market that performs analysis … which shows why in real usage it goes the other way. “Women analysts” does indeed sound more like a euphemism for “gynecologists.”

6. Defining WOMAN. | Radfem Hub - June 17, 2011

[…] my experience, as a woman mind you, common usage dictates that “woman” is a synonym for mature female human. Girl, another synonym for female, is also commonly […]

7. Penny - February 23, 2012

Thank you so much for bringing this up!!! This subject has been a thorn in my side for years! I just saw it being used on a web page talking about gender intelligence! They referred to their “women leaders”. That made me want to scream, so I sent an email to them to point out their grammatical error. Maybe if even some of us point out the mistake frequently enough, people may learn what an adjective really is. I hope.
Thank you again!
Penny

8. Sarah - January 17, 2013

“Woman senator” and “women ‘title of an occupation’” should really just die a slow and painful death. It is so ironic that since the word WOMAN actually comes from “Wife Of Man” and “Womb Of Man” that these people (mostly female) think the world FEMALE is more objectifying and reproductive based LOL.

I see so called intelligent people at work and in daily language lately call objects which are supposed to be and “it” a GUY! I saw a commercial for TIDE saying “cleans better than the other GUY”..REALLY? If that’s the case, where are all the people who want to complain about objectifying men by calling inanimate objects the slang MALE term GUY?

What about “GUYS” being seen as “gender neutral” don’t make me laugh….FEMALE DOCTOR should be used the same as MALE DOCTOR. A WOMAN DOCTOR is a doctor that specializes in treating WOMEN!

Soldier - October 29, 2013

Well said … lady. ;-)

9. Defining WOMAN. « Liberation Collective - January 27, 2013

[…] my experience, as a woman mind you, common usage dictates that “woman” is a synonym for mature female human. Girl, another synonym for female, is also commonly […]

10. Soldier - October 29, 2013

… and you would never say, “hey, there’s a man doctor over there.”

11. Soldier - October 29, 2013

… would the first word in “football field” or “baseball diamond” also be considered “noun adjuncts” or “attributive nouns”? what about “tire tracks,” “military intelligence,” or “heart transplant”? the list could be endless. as i understand it, there is ONLY 1 way to say these things, so it’s okay. but you don’t have to say “woman lawyer.” you can say “female lawyer.”

federalist - October 29, 2013

All your examples but one are noun adjuncts. “Military” is both a noun and an adjective, and in the phrase “military intelligence” it appears to be taking its adjective form.

I think there may be a trick to validating noun adjuncts: if in the phrase “X Y” both X and Y are nouns then try restating the phrase as “Y of a X” or “Y for X.” E.g., “field for football” or “tracks of a tire” may sound contrived, but not incorrect. However those constructions don’t work if X is an adjective. E.g., “Dinner of bad” fails because “bad” is an adjective, but “dinner of chicken” works because “chicken” is a valid noun adjunct.

Now consider the original question: Is “woman doctor” a valid noun adjunct? No: “doctor for a woman” would be a gynecologist, not a female doctor.

Mike Genest - October 29, 2013

Most excellent. You’ve taught me something I didn’t know.

12. Mike Genest - October 29, 2013

Soldier, you raise a good example. Here’s another: women’s rights. I think the answer to your question is, yes.

I was also intrigued by Sarah’s etymology of the word. Turns out, according to Wikipedia that she’s repeating a common error as to the origin of the word, woman. Here’s the entire quote and it’s interesting how unisex, or maybe asexual the origin is:

The spelling of woman in English has progressed over the past millennium from wīfmann[2] to wīmmann to wumman, and finally, the modern spelling woman.[3] In Old English, wīfmann meant “female human”, whereas wēr meant “male human”. Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of “human”, corresponding to Modern English “person” or “someone”, however subsequent to the Norman Conquest, man began to be used more in reference to “male human”, and by the late 1200s had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr.[4] The medial labial consonants f and m in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form “woman”, while the initial element, which meant “female,” underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman (“wife”). It is a popular misconception that the term “woman” is etymologically connected with “womb”, which is from a separate Old English word, wambe meaning “stomach” (of male or female). Nevertheless, such a false derivation of “woman” has appeared in print.[5]
A very common Indo-European root for woman, *gwen-, is the source of modern English “queen” (Old English cwēn had primarily meant woman, highborn or not; this is still the case in Danish, with the modern spelling kvinde, as well as in Swedish kvinna). The word gynaecology is also derived from the Ancient Greek cognate γυνή gynē, woman. Other English words traceable to the same Indo-European root include banshee “fairy woman” (from Irish bean “woman” and sí “fairy”) and zenana (from Persian زن zan).[6]
The Latin fēmina, whence female, is likely from the root in fellāre (to suck), in reference to breastfeeding.

As is often the case, our English gets some of its obnoxious (in this case sexist) qualities from the French. And, who’s surprised that our adjective for that gender derives from a Latin (mucho machismo) word for suck!

13. Penny - November 10, 2013

It is grammatically incorrect to use the word “women” or “woman” as an adjective. These words are nouns, not adjectives. For example “Women Voters” is not correct because “women” is being used as an adjective when it is actually a noun. Would you say “League of Man Voters”? No, you would say “male voters” just as you should correctly say “female voters”. Would you say “man athletes” or “man students”? No, of course you wouldn’t. You would say “male athletes” and “male students”.
I hope this helps to clear this up.
By the way, if you want to be sure about this, just look in the Webster’s Dictionary which describes the word “women” as a noun:
Wom´en
n. 1. pl. of Woman.
These days the misuse of this word is widespread. It is easy to understand why. Recent generations have not received the intense training we “older folks” did when it came to spelling and grammar. We were taught the “old fashioned” way. We had phonics. Instead of “whole language” we had spelling and grammar classes and we were tested. (Oh how awful!) It did not ruin our self-esteem. It made us study. (Oh the horror!)
We were not bordering on illiteracy like most of today’s young people. We were confident that when we filled out a job application, there wouldn’t be spelling or grammatical errors. This added to our self-esteem. Today’s young adults are sometimes shocked when they don’t get the jobs they apply for. Many times their spelling and grammar is so appalling, employers believe that they are just plain stupid. They aren’t. They just didn’t receive proper education when it came to spelling and grammar. Unless they have “Word” to correct most of their mistakes, they are lost.
A few radicals believe that traditional grammar has no place in the school curriculum since it can be an instrument of racism and oppression! So are we to believe that our English language has to be butchered because it may insult those who choose to speak incorrectly!? So does that mean our young people shouldn’t be taught how to write without spelling and grammatical errors because it might offend someone? Can anyone see any sense in this way of thinking?
Why am I so concerned about using “women” as an adjective instead of a noun? It is a small example of a huge problem sweeping our country and the world. It is an example of how our system is ignoring the fact that the English language is systemically being butchered by our so called educators. Eventually this will lead to people speaking a language that is a shadow of what used to be English. That is not progress. That is regression. That is the deterioration and eventual fall of a beautiful dialect.

SoSaysSunny - August 27, 2016

[…] [T]he English language is systemically being butchered by our so called educators. Eventually this will lead to people speaking a language that is a shadow of what used to be English. That is not progress. That is regression. That is the deterioration and eventual fall of a beautiful dialect. […]

I agree. Why create a new practice that applies to ‘woman’ but not ‘man’?

Languages should GROW with new words that are needed, SHRINK by losing unused/unnecessary words, and AVOID creating new exceptions — especially to an already insanely complex language like English.

~ SoSaysSunny (that’s my opinion, take it or leave it … or debate it!)

14. Tam - November 30, 2013

It is not grammatically incorrect to use ‘woman’ or ‘women’ as a modifier. As the main post already pointed out, when a noun behaves as an adjective, it is called a noun adjunct or attributive noun. Now, the author of the post also says that using woman as a noun adjunct is grating because the word female “almost always serves the same purpose.” It does not really serve the same purpose–there is a subtle but important difference. The word female describes a noun or clarifies it whereas the noun adjunct ‘woman’ is actually intrinsic to the meaning of the noun phrase. ‘Woman’ is stronger than ‘female’; it has more weight. The Oxford English Dictionary labels woman as a noun and as a modifier (i.e. woman doctor). There is nothing incorrect about using a noun as a modifier, in this case woman. Using woman as a noun adjunct does not bastardize or butcher the language.

15. wow@will.edu - August 1, 2014

If ‘woman” and “women” has more weight and is valid, then we should be using”man” and “men” as well. for example, man doctor, man nurse, etc. But, for some reason, this latter usage is unacceptable. If it good for women, then it should be good for men.

Mike Genest - August 2, 2014

And if the queen had you-know-whats, she’d be the you-know-who!

16. Ger - December 11, 2015

I agree that ‘woman’ and ‘women’ should not be used as an adjective in a lot of cases, but why not use it as a possessive noun? Women’s suffrage: the suffrage movement belonging to women. Women’s apparel: the section of apparel belonging to women. Woman’s sink: the sink belonging to a woman, as in a bathroom with a double sink.
When describing female doctor, however, this wouldn’t work unless perhaps you are speaking of a group meeting for women of a specific profession, or support group such as the Women’s AA.
Or, why can one not use ‘of’, as in ‘suffrage of women’, of ‘for’, as in ‘apparel for women’. If people do not want to be misunderstood, they should be very specific in their manners of writing.

Mike Genest - December 11, 2015

This thread has legs! It’s now six years old and still growing (I hope). I would, however, encourage commenters to read all previous posts. Apparently, that has not always been the case.


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