Language Notebook: Inspecting grammar

BY ABIGAIL B. COLODNER
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 12, 2008

"Women" is not an adjective. It's a noun. So why, in the last several years, has the phrase "women [noun]" replaced "female [noun]"? Society of Women Engineers. "Osteoperosis: A Woman Doctor's Guide." Organization of Women Architects, who claim they work, interestingly enough, in a "male-dominated field."

Word use changes over time, but that doesn't mean those changes don't merit our scrutiny. The last time I heard the non-adjective "man" modifying a noun was in "man candy." The last time I went for a checkup, I didn't see a man doctor. A man chef isn't creating great cuisine downtown, either. Nor is there a man senator in office, or a man clerk bagging your groceries. We speak of maleness as an attribute, not an object.

It seems we're all having lady problems these days. Do we not care enough about the women we describe to get the words right?

To use a noun in place of an adjective objectifies the description. If "female" sounds too clinical, why don't we squirm at the use of "male" to describe men? Maybe the associations of maleness with validity and femaleness with a qualified status are stronger than we like to admit. The misuse of a term intended to dignify adds insult to injury.

I suspect the phrase gained popularity in some pro-feminist context that also happened to be gimmicky and unprofessional. If "women" professionals want to be seen as women who are experts in their field, rather than mistaken for individuals who happen to be experts in women, they should make better use of the very acuity that got them into a position to shape the English language in the first place.

To use the noun "women" as an exception to the rules of grammar is a cop-out. It detracts from the credibility of the argument being made by many of these foundations, articles, and professional and outreach organizations - how can a group demand its rightful equality if it can't respect its right to use the same language?

The improper use of the noun "Democrat" to modify the noun "Party" has received some, if not enough, press. The term's objectification of a political party that's based on a set of ideals and policies has been pointed out as a deliberate manipulation of the English language. It is to the detriment of the party it describes, in effect if not intent. Bush and stauncher Republicans have come under fire for their suspicious misuse of a term that describes their opposition party.

The lack of respect is implicit in the grammar.