There is no such thing as a "woman president"

You know the English language is in trouble when both NPR and the BBC World Service decide that "woman" is an adjective, as in "Argentina has just elected its first woman president." As a copy editor, I had to fix that one numerous times, usually in the copy of young reporters whose excuse was that the proper adjective, "female," was too clinical, and they didn't want their story to read as if it concerned a science project. Oh really?

First, that's no excuse. "Woman" is noun. Look it up. I always managed to win the argument by pointing out that you wouldn't seriously consider using the phrase "man president," now, would you?

Second, and more to the point of this forum, what's so bad about using a term that evokes a clinical or scientific tone? This problem does not arise in sports reporting, where "female athlete" seems quite appropriate. Is there something repulsive about science-oriented approaches to politics? If so, does that say something more essential about our culture's relationship to the hard sciences? I don't know. I just know that hearing the phrase "woman president" first thing in the morning two days in a row, first on BBC and then on NPR, makes waking up according to the sleeping habits of my not-quite-one-year-old son even less enjoyable.

Please bookmark this post and forward the URL to the editors of any news outlet that allows this affront to the English language to propagate any further.

And just in case you were thinking about it: Any objections I have to Hillary Clinton's politics have nothing to do with her XX chromosomes.


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You go, girl. ....uh, woman. Female-thingy. Never mind.

By Michael MacDonald (not verified) on 29 Oct 2007 #permalink

I feel your pain, dude. As a proofreader (who also does a little copyediting) I see this all the time and it always bugs me. Your explanation is correct; there is a distinct avoidance of the word "female" in contexts where we'd be perfectly comfortable with "male". I'm not sure why it started--women feeling a need to assert adultness in place of the more generic word (even though this would normally be clear from context, such as "female president")--I don't know, but I think it's been going on long enough that many people doing it don't think about why consciously, it's just normal to them now. While this is arguably not the worst crisis in English usage today, it is common and annoying.

The Ridger only proves my point: people just don't understand how English is put together.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with "Science Blog," any more than there's anything wrong with "science teacher" or "science class."

In any event, noun-noun modification is fine when there's no alternative. Except, of course, that there's almost always an alternative, English being a language with such a large and flexible vocabulary. And that's the irony of it all -- with so much to draw from, there's no need for bad usage.

Thank you. Constructions like "developed by a woman doctor" have set my teeth on edge for years.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 29 Oct 2007 #permalink

I disagree that "woman president" is an error, even with alternatives available. The form is established as acceptable through other examples, IIUC: physician president, scientist astronaut, amputee soldier, etc.

Actually Neil, your examples are more in the line of compound nouns than nouns being used as adjectives.

Wouldn't the phrase "woman president" or "woman doctor" be valid only if your talking about a President of women (and only women) or a Gynecologist. It certainly doesn't define the gender of the practitioner.

Troy nails it. And Moopheus is correct. Proper usage of compound nouns usually requires a hyphen, as in "scientist-president." (As if that's ever going to happen. I wish.)

But really, folks, all you need to do to know if "woman president" makes sense is change the gender. Once again, would you use the phrase "man president"? I don't think so.

" ...people just don't understand how English is put together."

is this irony, or what? If you think you know how English is put together, you should know enough to choose your battles, and your ammunition. If you have any doubts, I suggest you check out Language Log occasionally. They like to skewer language fallacies there.

A thorough rebuttal of this article by Mark Liberman, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania, can be found here, on Language Log, with citations going back to the fourteenth century.

Prof. Liberman concludes: "It's surprising how often this happens. Someone invents a theory about the nature of the English language, entirely unsupported by any evidence or argument beyond his own whim about what is "logical" (or "consistent" or "traditional" or just plain "correct"), and starts hectoring everybody for writing or talking in a fashion that's been normal among educated speakers for centuries -- in this case, 700 years."

By Iain Coleman (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

More than being schooled (as Kris points out), you've got room to doubt yourself on your island of doubt.

Check out the nouns-as-adjectives you used in your own post to cast doubt on noun adjectives:

"English language" used 2x

"BBC World Service" noun + noun + noun = adj & adj + noun

"copy editor" your job, no less!!

"science project" (if you later use "scientific tone")

"science-oriented approaches" (if you earlier use "scientific tone")

"bookmark" (okay, technically it's 1 noun, but it's 1 made of 2, and the 1st as your adj.)

"news outlet" (Do you now want us to forward your noun adjectives "to the editors of any news outlet that allows this affront to the English language to propagate any further"??)

As the kids say, you got pwnt.

Anyone care to actually refute my argument with something more than "other people say it, so it must be true"? Just because some nouns can be used to modify does not mean every noun can.

Once again and for the last time: What responsible copy editor would permit "man president" to slip past?

Here's that link again. In fairness to anyone who might stumble on this blog and your made-up rule, I feel you should amend your post in some way, to reflect the fact that it is complete nonsense. Perhaps "Sorry, this is complete rubbish, I don't have aleg to stand on," would suffice. Right at the top in red letters.

By Fred Palmero (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

Stick to science, dude.

What the hell has "man president" got to do with it? Just because one of a pair of nouns isn't used in a particular way doesn't mean the other one can't be. For that matter, "man" is used a lot (man nurse is probably the most common), though most likely you'd spike that usage, too; and "gentleman" is used with extreme frequency.

Anyone care to actually refute my argument with something more than "other people say it, so it must be true"? Just because some nouns can be used to modify does not mean every noun can.

How about: Competent speakers and writers of English have been using this construction for 700 years, so it must not be ungrammatical.

Or how about: Look up "woman" yourself and see that it's routinely used as a modifier.

If you want 700 years of examples, or the relevant OED entries, just follow one of the links to language log above.

James, probably most of us have complained about usages that we think are ruining our lovely language, but I think what you're saying here is prescriptivism of the sort with negative connotations. Here is another interesting post at Language Log regarding that:

It was an intentional ploy to get LL to correct your idiocy, right?

By G. T. Karber (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

"Woman president" makes just as much sense as "girl friend" or "boy wonder" (or even "man bag").

I don't much like the term 'woman president' either (for several reasons that I'll spare you).

But the language log guy is right, there's nothing about it that doesn't conform to the rules of formal English grammar.

BTW is your last name Ukrainian? (just idle curiosity)

By michael farris (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

So you're claiming that "woman president" is no good because woman isn't an adjective. You must therefore be thinking that "female" is an adjective. Let's test that, shall we? (* means ungrammatical)

Comparative form is allowed on Adjs, but not on Ns. large - larger, female - *femaler ; intelligent/more intelligent, female/*more female

Superlatives form is allowed on Adjs., but not on Ns. the largest I ever saw / *the femalest I ever saw ; the most intelligent ever / *the most female ever

Articles allowed on Ns, but not on Adjs. *an intelligent/a female ; *the large / the female

Pluralisation allowed on Ns, but not on Adjs *seven intellegents/ seven females

Verbs agree with Ns, but not with Adjs *The intelligent walked / the female walked ; *Six intelligents females/ Six intelligent females

So if you object to "woman president" because it is noun-noun, you should also object to "female president". Or you could do what everyone else has already suggested: admit you're wrong about this whole thing.

Ooops...mild embarassment. I accidentally included an example of pluralisation under the category of verb agreement in my last comment (but I can't go back and edit these things). The "*six intelligents females/six intelligent females" is in the wrong spot.

Doesn't do any good to criticize someone's lack of grammatical competence, and then make an error like that. Sorry!

How about "man boobs" and "man whore?"

By Pop Culture (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

"Anyone care to actually refute my argument with something more than "other people say it, so it must be true"? Just because some nouns can be used to modify does not mean every noun can."

You sound like people I know who complain that 'fast' or 'slow' can't be adverbs. They're adjectives, and that's final. Those people are mistaken, both on logical and historical grounds.

Likewise with your stand on the the noun 'woman'. Your suggestion that 'woman' is somehow exempted from a general English morphological rule (a Noun/Noun-combination can form a new valid noun with the head being the second member) is simply not supported by the evidence. The proposal isn't illogical in itself, since 'woman' IS exempted from another general rule, namely, that a Noun/S-combination forms a noun in the plural. The only way to settle such questions is by observation. 700 years worth of observaton clearly show that the accepted plural of 'woman' is 'women' (not 'womans') amd that 'woman' CAN be the first member of compound noun.

That said, I'd be interested to know if there is such a noun as your proposed 'woman'. Noun/Noun-combination is an extraordinarily productive process in English, and I'm betting you'd have to search high and wide to find such. In fact, I'll bet there isn't one. Don't get me wrong: I'm sure you can find noun/noun compounds that no one what ever YET used, or ones that could find sensible application in only the most unusual of contexts, but I'm wagering that there is no principled constraint on any such formation.

OK, all done.

By James Parkin (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

I'm afraid Scott made more than a minor mistake. In "The president is female", the noun 'female' would need a determiner. 'Female' exists as both noun and adjective.

Of course, James is still wrong.

The strangeness of "man president" has to do with the fact that presidents are prototypically male. Replace "president" with something prototypically female, and the result is much less anomalous: "man nurse", "man teacher".

Anyone care to actually refute my argument with something more than "other people say it, so it must be true"?

You were refuted by the OED, the greatest existing authority on the English language. Your view is also contradicted by the usage of educated speakers for centuries. Given these two strikes against you, what is your basis for the prohibition? How do you know that the OED, BBC, NPR, James Joyce, and others are wrong, while you are right? Editorial fiat? Divine revelation?

ouch. Spanked at Language Log. I still think it sounds terrible, but I just looked it up in my trusty 1949 Webster's New Collegiate (2nd ed.), and, damn it, there it is:

--adj....2. Female; as, a woman physician.

The last time I took a public (blog-comment) stand on an issue of usage ("data" as singular, which I still hate hate hate), I got similarly spanked (incidentally, the singular usage was apparently common back in 1949, too).
That's it. I'm going out of the prescriptivism business and reverting to private-pedant status.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

Its always fun when someone over-pontificates about the language and shoots themselves in the foot. All they do is show up their own ignorance of the langauge.

"Woman President" is perfectly plain standard English. Nowt wrong with it at all. Just like my singular "they" in the previous paragraph :-)

Sven, I'm with you on data. It sounds wrong to me when I see it used as a singular, but I recognize that the singular is common. When I edit our reports, I change it to plural with the excuse that different contributors to the reports use it differently, and I'm just making it consistent.

I should have linked that discussion of data...I tried to hold the line, but to no avail...the descriptionists pummeled me.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

descriptionists = descriptivists

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

James, you have confused grammar with language style. Thinking "woman president" sounds bad is about as logical as thinking "pink is so 2005." If you don't like "woman president," it's a matter of personal taste, no matter how hard you might rationalize it. As a journalist, you are right to pay attention to your language style, but that often has nothing to do with grammar.

I don't think "woman president" is "woman" playing an adjective (or "modifier" to use what appears to be the newfangled term). I think the English orthography is fooling you into believing you are dealing with two words. I think you're looking at a compound noun, just like "girlfriend", which, if literally translated into German where compound nouns are easily recognizable, would sound just as ridiculous as "boyfriend" and "woman president" would.

IMHO English is chock full of compound nouns written with spaces between their parts. They can get surprisingly long, perhaps because they still look like several short words when written. I don't see where the difference between "science project" and "bookmark" is, other than tradition. In German such words are never written separate.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 01 Nov 2007 #permalink

Ger man words (from Marjanović)
man boobs (from pop culture)
man whore (also from pop culture)
man power (as if from Marjanović)
man talk (google gets radio stationS, &
man food (not foo foo fare)
man law (from Miller beer's ad man, also at wikipedia)
man time (when one talks man talk, downs man food & Miller)
man tools (what Tim the Tool Time Taylor uses)
man toys (vs those for boys and girls)
man movie (not a chic flick)
Man Man (the experimental indie band out of Philly)
(Blue) Man Group (more famous than Man Man)
Man Candy (one of those awful boy bands)
Man-Man Comics (with it's Man-Manual Story Selector)
man president (vs the other kind soon enough)
man journalist (we need that sort too)
man editor (step up)

I suspect that many who object to 'woman president' on the grounds that it changes the part of speech of the word think that Shakespeare was a great writer, yet he moved words from being one part of speech to another with abandon. Individual words may grate at times, but it has been an accepted part of English for centuries.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 02 Nov 2007 #permalink