Women modifiers

« previous post | next post »

Maddie York, "Why there are too many women doctors, women MPs, and women bosses", The Guardian 10/17/2014:

I am a subeditor at the Guardian. I am a woman. I am not a woman subeditor. But “woman” and its plural seem to be taking over the role of modifier, so that now, there is no such thing, as far as much of the media is concerned, as a female doctor, a female MP or a female chef. Instead you hear or read about a woman doctor, a woman MP and so on. […]

As far as the Guardian style guide is concerned, it is simply wrong to use “woman” and “women” in this way, because, it says, they are not adjectives.

John McIntyre responds ("Women beware 'woman'", The Baltimore Sun 10/17/2014:

Let's take a moment to unpack where Ms York is right-headed and wrong-headed.    

I'm sure that a subeditor at The Guardian is aware of English's polymorphous parts of speech. You can insist that woman is a noun and not an adjective, but that doesn't make it so. English freely makes use of nouns as adjectives: have you sat in a window seat or closed a cellar door? So the "not an adjective" stuff is merely careless overstating of "I don't like using it as an adjective.

Geoff Pullum would say instead that English makes free use of nouns as modifiers, as John notes in an Addendum quoting Ian Loveless:

Believe it or not, nouns can, will, and do modify other nouns attributively. There is no need to reclassify every noun in the dictionary as an adjective just so we can explain how they can do this. Furthermore, these types of modifiers fail every test for an adjective devised by linguists, specifically modification by an adverb (she can't be a "very woman" doctor) and gradation (she can't be "womaner" than her sister). As Geoffrey Pullum says, "A noun is a noun".

John also links to a response by Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org ("Women in the Guardian", 10/17/2014), tracing the use of woman as a modifier back to the 14th century.  Some of the same points were made in a LLOG post a few years ago ("False logic and linguistic blindness: You could look it up", 10/31/2007).

Ms. York's false syntax obscures a valid point:

There would be no real problem if we used both “woman” and “man” as modifiers, but we don’t, so the implication is that a “woman manager” is a modification of the standard or natural form, or something slightly less than the full version. It behaves like “junior”: doctor, woman doctor, junior doctor, for example. Doctor – male implied – is the standard, woman and junior the variants. They are the not-quite-doctors.

In fact there have long been parallel examples with man or men as a modifier, like the KJV translation of Ecclesiastes 2:8:

I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.

And there are a few reasonably common current expressions in which man is used as a modifier, e.g. "man friend", "man nurse", "man witch", "man boobs". But these are cases where female gender is expected. Thus "man friend" seems mostly to be used to denote a male friend of a woman, in circumstances where female friends would be the norm, as in these NYT headlines: "Blond Teller Stole $65000 for Man Friend, Police Say"; "Three Get Estate of Miss Whitehead: Two Sisters and Man Friend to Divide Between $200,000 and $300,000". Or these examples from The Guardian:

I am a widow, aged 60, enjoy living alone and am not looking for a partner. I do, though, have a man friend, also widowed, with whom I share many common interests.

A man friend expressed disappointment that Em D was abandoning her old wardrobe of unmitigated glamour in favour of something challenging and edgy.

In further Bel drama, her mother – a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Ab Fab's Edina Monsoon – comes to stay, but then doesn't, as she decides to go out with her man friend instead.

So Ms. York is correct that for professions where male gender is the unmarked case, people write (and say) "woman doctor" but not "man doctor", "woman president" but not "man president", etc. This is a fact about our society rather than a fact about English syntax, however — the same regrettable asymmetry applies to "female president" vs. "male president".

Still, it seems to me that Ms. York also has a valid linguistic point. It's common to find terms like "male doctor" used where gender is relevant, e.g. these web quotes:

It is prudent for women to avoid male doctors for intimate female health issues.

An American male doctor has contracted the Ebola virus while working at a hospital in Liberia, it was confirmed today as the CDC warned that the deadly disease was spiraling out of control.

Doctors of both sexes also enjoy the linguistic freedom to ask personal questions. For instance, the male doctor can openly and freely inquire about a female patient's bowel, bladder, vaginal, and rectal condition. Likewise, the female doctor can ask her male patients about the character and frequency of an erection.

And it would be unexpected to use the modifier "man" in such cases. Perhaps this is because using a noun as the modifier suggests that an unusual or marked category is being referenced, even when reference to gender is contextually relevant. And this is what bothered Ms. York in the first place.

On the other hand, as John McIntyre observes,

[T]astes vary. When women were first ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church forty years ago, woman priest was the term many of them favored, because the use of female as a noun (another polymorphous part of speech) for non-human species ("the female of the species is more deadly than the male") carries disagreeable overtones.  

Ms. York is, however, on to something when she sniffs for sexist condescension. After all, "woman driver" was a staple leitmotif for hack comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, and we have discarded poetess. But now that the Church of England has belatedly figured out that once you ordain a woman a priest there is no obstacle to consecrating her as a bishop, women in miters will be a novelty, and woman bishop will be a handy term for talking and writing about them.


  1. Janne said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    Adjectives don't have to allow adverbial modification or gradation in English, though? "Two-stroke" is an adjective, yet it'd feel a bit awkward to say it's "a very two-stroke" engine or that it's "more two-stroke" than that one.

    [(myl) Why would you believe that "two-stroke" is an adjective? It seems transparently to be a modifier consisting of a cardinal number and a noun, similar to "ten gallon hat", "three dog night", "five dollar bill", "seven year itch", "thousand year egg", and so on.]

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    What can be said about agreement between the noun as modifier and its associated noun? We have 'woman doctor' and 'women doctors'. Why? Why not 'woman doctors'? We don't say 'windows seats', 'cellars doors' or 'eyes doctors' do we?

  3. Jon Lennox said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    Mr Fortner@2:

    This seems to have to do with regular vs. irregular plurals? Thus "teeth marks" but not "*claws marks".

    Not that plural agreement is mandatory for irregular plurals — both "woman doctors" and "tooth marks" seem fine to me as well — but it's permitted.

    Example from Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.

    [(myl) It seems that "tooth mark" is a noun+noun compound, rather than a modifier+noun phrase – both on the basis of stress (first-word stress) and semantics (a mark made by a tooth, not a mark that is a tooth).]

  4. Ben said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    "yet it'd feel a bit awkward to say it's "a very two-stroke" engine or that it's "more two-stroke" than that one."

    You could just say it's three-stroke or four-stroke or thoroughly-struck if you felt the need.

  5. John Walden said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    Perhaps it's something to do with "and a". A window seat is not a window and a seat but a man servant is a man and a servant.

    An idea which lasted the seconds it took to think of 'boy scout', 'girl guide' and 'child soldier'.

  6. Judith Strauser said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    The first thing that comes to my mind is that perhaps the Guardian is starting to feel wary of using the adjective "female" after so many feminists* have rightly objected to the use of "females" as a substantive instead of "women". There has been backlash and affirmations that "women" is better because it's the proper word and "females" carries too many animal, reductive connotations, and because the use of "females" seems to have spread from MRA types and other misogynistic circles. It is possible that the newspaper is simply swinging the pendulum back the other way a bit too strongly…

    (I self-identify as one, I'm not using the word disparagingly – how sad that I feel this caveat is needed.)

  7. Lazar said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    Even having a nurse for a mother, I've never encountered the phrase "man nurse" before – although Google indicates that it does see some use. In my experience it's always been "male nurse".

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    John Walden: "Child soldier [actor, prodigy]" shows nicely that an irregular plural isn't enough to allow the word to become plural as a modifier. Why are there women priests but no children prodigies? No doubt Pinker gives the complete rule, if there is one

  9. efahl said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    Taking a cue from mathematics, I'd categorize "two-stroke" as a discrete adjective, which disallows (or at least discourages) grading modifiers "-er", "-est", "more", "less", whereas things like "tall" or "ugly" would be continuous adjectives.

  10. Martha said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    In my social group at least, "man friend" is not "used to denote a male friend of a woman, in circumstances where female friends would be the norm," but rather someone you date but aren't officially dating, probably typically used when describing older people, as in the first "man friend" example above. It would describe a situation where people aren't "just friends." What I'd use to describe a male friend of a woman, who is just a friend who happens to be male, is "guy friend."

    My mom used the phrase "man doctor" recently. It amused me.

  11. Aaron said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    On the point about `two-stroke,' I seem to remember that a company (BMW?) has developed an engine with a two-stroke top end and a 4-stroke-ish bottom end, so maybe the engine in my lawnmower is two-strokier than the new hybrid.

    I do like the idea of `discrete adjectives' though.

  12. A. Mandible said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

    "Man boobs" doesn't fit in the list where it appears– it's more like "man cave", "man purse", "man date" and other things which pertain to men but are not themselves men, and so for which substituting "male" would be bizarre.

    [(myl) Yes, you're right — by the argument I gave above, this is clearly a noun+noun compound, as both the stress pattern and the meaning indicate.]

    "Man friend", "man nurse" and "man witch" are totally unfamiliar to me, but if they're things people say, I assume the people so denoted are men– "man friend" isn't used like "I went out for barbecue and power tools with my man friend Sarah– she's great!"

  13. Keith said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    Besides the idea that it is condescending to feel the need to point out that the doctor, president or police officer in question happens to be a woman as opposed to being a man as is "normal", the plural construction of "women doctors" seems to break the rule that in English adjectives are generally invariable.

    A noun can function as an adjective when placed before another noun, in English, but it still obeys the rule of being invariable. This is why we have "claw marks", this is why (despite Pinker's protests) we have "rat eaters" (but then there are exceptions to this rule, of course).

    As for "male nurse", this is a common term in the UK, and it is much better than "man nurse". A "male nurse" is a nurse who happens to be male. A "man nurse" would be a nurse who takes care of sick men, in the same way that a "horse doctor" is a vet who takes care especially of horses… note again how the noun "horse", when standing in for an adjective, remains in the singular.


  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

    Wasn't Woman Police Constable (WPC) a standard designation in the British constabulary for most of the 20th century? How old is Ms. York, anyway? Even if she doesn't remember WPCs, hasn't she watched Morse reruns, or Life on Mars?

  15. Stan Carey said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

    Jan Freeman wrote a good article about the history of commentary on this issue in the Boston Globe a few years ago.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    I almost forgot Dr. Slop the man-midwife.

  17. Rubrick said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    @A. Mandible: '"Man friend", "man nurse" and "man witch" are totally unfamiliar to me'.

    The important thing to remember is that a sand witch is a sand witch, but a man witch is a male.

  18. Stuart Brown said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    When I were a lad (in Lancashire), 60 years ago, we would never have said "woman doctor". The correct term was "lady doctor". And the plural would clearly be "lady doctors" and not "ladies doctors".

  19. Chingona said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    Why is John McIntyre sometimes called John here, but Maddie York is "Ms. York"?

    [(myl) In my usage, it's because I've corresponded with John McIntyre, and met him in person a couple of times, and have no such history With Maddie York.]

  20. ET said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    Why there are too many women doctors, women MPs, and women bosses – absolutely!
    Unless every description is prefaced with gender, none of them should be.
    There is no special school for doctors or lawyers of bosses of either gender.
    If you insist on writing women doctors (in 2014!) then all doctors should be called women doctor or man doctor. Anything else is absurd.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    Keith: "Student nurse" seems to be a common term in the UK and doesn't mean a nurse who cares for students.

  22. mollymooly said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 6:58 am

    @Jerry Friedman: A man-midwife was a real thing, not a Laurence Sterne joke. But that was several centuries ago.

  23. Zubon said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 7:49 am

    I have heard "lady doctor" before, but only as a euphemism for an OB/GYN.

  24. tpr said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 7:49 am

    I think the awkwardness of man doctor and woman doctor might be a garden path-type processing issue.

    Note that we can freely use man to modify nouns that have been derived from verbs by adding -er, so we have familiar terms like man eater (someone or something that eats men), and man hater (someone or something that hates men). This appears to be a productive rule, so the same applies to expressions that couldn't be mistaken for idioms such as a man counter (someone or something that counts men).

    But the word doctor sounds like it's derived from a verb + er so that a man doctor ought to be someone who docts men, but because that isn't a word, the parser would have to backtrack and try to attempt the next most plausible interpretation.

    Note also that there are several masculine modifiers we can use before a noun that each have a different prototypical effect on the semantics: man, male, and men's:

    1. a man hater (a hater of men)
    2. a male doctor (a doctor who is a male)
    3. a men's doctor (a doctor for men)

    It can't be (1) because there is no verb doct, and the fact that there are better words available for the other two meanings makes it hard to know what a speaker might intend by man doctor. Is it a doctor who is a man or is it a doctor for men?

  25. Dave K said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    A related point is that "male" seems to be replacing "man" surprisingly often as in "I saw two males running from the crime scene".

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    mollymooly: I wasn't saying that "man-midwife" was a joke, though I suspect Sterne saw some humor in the term.

    Dave K: At Google Books, there seems to have been an increase in "males" and then a decrease, as shown here. Of course to do it right, you'd have to look at how many uses of "males" refer to humans. I think the reason for it is to cover both men and boys.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    ET: "Unless every description is prefaced with gender, none of them should be.
    There is no special school for doctors or lawyers of bosses of either gender.
    If you insist on writing women doctors (in 2014!) then all doctors should be called women doctor or man doctor. Anything else is absurd."

    So I shouldn't say that some person prefers to go to a man/male or a woman/female doctor unless I want to specify the gender of every doctor? I think that's going too far. Or do you mean that in 2014 no one should have such a preference?

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    Indeed, sometimes people who seem to have a progressive/feminist/egalitarian agenda identify female professionals by sex when they wouldn't do the same for males in the same (presumably historically male-dominated) field. So, e.g., some legal trade journal recently compiled a list of 100 female lawyers ("lady lawyers" is a bit archaic-sounding) who it thought could be plausible candidates to become general counsel of a Fortune 500 company. http://www.insidecounsel.com/2014/07/24/poised-for-prominence. No one would compile a list of 100 specifically male lawyers for that purpose, and if anyone compiled a list of 100 lawyers (w/o prescreening for sex) for such a purpose and the resulting list turned out to be *too* overwhelmingly male (at a guess, more than 70 or 75ish %?), they would attract criticism. Belief that femaleness is a salient characteristic worth expressly noting in a particular context can go with all sorts of substantive views about the appropriate role(s) of women in society, including views that contradict each other.

    Once upon a time in the U.S., there was indeed a law school with an all-female student body (at a time when even those other law schools that did not formally exclude women typically had female enrollments of <5%). but the experiment proved unsustainable in the long run and the school became fully co-ed by (sez wikipedia) 1938. It ultimately abandoned its distinctive original name (Portia Law School), which had the piquant irony of suggesting that the most inspiring role model for a would-be female lawyer was fictional. I don't know if there was a parallel in medical or other professional education.

  29. Chris C. said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    "lady lawyers" is a bit archaic-sounding

    But perhaps not incorrect, even politically, given the predilection of American attorneys for styling themselves "Esquire". I suppose this may not be as common as it once was, though.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

    "Subeditor" is one of those Briticisms (or at least non-USisms) that always disorients me for a moment before I can remember what it means. The marked-for-femaleness "subeditrix" seems almost non-existent (three hits in google books, all possibly jocular). Perhaps women were excluded from the relevant function on Fleet Street so long that most gender-inflected occupational designations in -trix, -ess, etc. had already become archaic/awkward before there were any pioneers to which they might be applied?

    OTOH, "lady subeditor" (or "lady sub editor") appears to be in current use in India, with some hits in contexts that suggest at first blush it is not considered beyond the pale or likely to generate lawsuits.

  31. Michael Watts said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:53 pm

    A woman may not be describable as "womaner" than her sister, but I'm pretty sure you could call her "more woman" than her sister.

  32. Keith said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    Keith: "Student nurse" seems to be a common term in the UK and doesn't mean a nurse who cares for students.

    I think that the term "student nurse" denotes somebody who is both a student and a nurse, who attends lectures and who also at times works in a hospital or clinic under fully-qualified supervisors. It's analogous to the term "student teacher".

    In that sense, both the element "student" and "nurse" are nouns and perhaps it would be "more correcter" to write the compound noun as "student-nurse".


  33. Alex said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    @Jerry Friedman and Keith. For things like "student nurse," you're meant to resolve the ambiguity with context and background knowledge. We're never going to get everything fully specified. It doesn't help to say they are both nouns, because that is true of both interpretations. Likewise, the proposed hyphenation would not resolve which sense was intended unless we made up a new rule and got everyone to agree to it.

    There was a classic Saturday Night Live sketch in the late 70's where Laraine Newman was a child psychologist. She was both a child and a psychologist who treated children. It was funnier than it sounds.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    Keith: Would you accept "woman-doctor" as a parallel to your (possibly wishful) suggestion of "student-nurse"? I'd say it suggests at least as strongly that the doctor treats women. In other words, I agree with Alex.

  35. Keith said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 3:21 am

    At the risk of giving away my age, I admit that I also (like Stuart Brown) remember when we referred to GPs who happened to be women as "lady doctors".

    When speaking English, I prefer to not have to qualify the sex of a person each time I refer to his or her profession. So no, I'm not about to start referring to "woman-doctors".

    It's not necessary in English to make the noun agree with the biological gender of the person. French (the language I use most of the time these days) requires this for some professions, though not for all. A primary school teachers is "instituteur" (masc) or "institutrice" (fem), while a secondary school teacher of either sex is "professeur". A doctor is "docteur" or (bizarrely) "doctoresse", though this is rarely used and I prefer to say "doctrice", just to put the cat among the pigeons and see if the person I'm speaking with is paying attention.

    I recently started studying Armenian, another language without grammatical gender; there are a very few nouns with a suffix to denote the feminine: "haj" for Armenian man, "hajuhi" for Armenian woman; "usuts'ich" for a male teacher, "usuts'chuhi" for a female teacher.

    But I'm straying off the point.

    I can imagine a situation where I might, possibly, want to refer specifically to the sex of the doctors in question (maybe there is a preponderance of women in certain specialisations, for example), but in such cases I think I'd still prefer to refer to them as "male doctors" in comparison with "female doctors".

  36. Adam Roberts said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 3:48 am

    I'm hoping the LL comments has no objection to using obscenities, but I was wondering about 'fucking' as a modifier. In the phrase 'he's a fucking idiot', it looks to me as though the f-word is adjectivally modifying (or intensifying) the noun; but one wouldn't talk of 'a very fucking idiot'. I was going to add that one wouldn't say 'fuckingest', either; but then I thought again. I suppose I could imagine, though I haven't encountered, somebody describing another as 'the absolute fuckingest idiot I ever met'. It's an extremely adaptable word, after all (thinking of Anthony Burgess's experience in army when the phrase 'the fucking fucker's fucked' was intended and understood by all as meaning 'the annoying machine is broken').

    I hope this doesn't look like derailing the thread.

  37. Keith said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 4:35 am

    I'm sure I've read an explanation of this kind of thing, describing how words of certain categories can occupy certain well-defined "slots", how a particular word in a particular slot requires or forbids certain words in other slots, how slots appear in a particular order… e.g. speed slot followed by colour slot followed by noun ("quick, brown fox" and not *"brown, quick fox").

    Maybe in "The Atoms of Language", or maybe in one of Pinker's books.

  38. Martha said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

    You can't say "He's a very total idiot," either.

    For me, a "lady doctor" is an OB-GYN, a "woman doctor" describes the old-fashioned situation, and a "female doctor" is a doctor who happens to be a woman ("Sally prefers to go to a female doctor.").

  39. Peter Erwin said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 6:02 am


    I would tentatively suggest that "fucking" is for the most part still acting like a gerund (or "gerund-participle", as I think Huddleston & Pullum prefer), which is presumably its origin. So it functions in rather the same noun-like way that other gerunds do — e.g., the way "singing" does in "a singing nun" — and tends to have the same restrictions (you can't really say, "a very singing nun", for example), even if it has acquired extra meaning(s) beyond the literal one.

RSS feed for comments on this post