Women presidents: the real story

I had a little fun yesterday -- at my own expense -- by writing what a few commenters correctly identified as an attempt to generate traffic on this blog. The subject was the use of the term "woman president," which I actually do think is poor English, but my motivation wasn't convincing anyone stop using it.

It all began over the weekend, when I heard the term on a BBC news broadcast and a day later on NPR. As a former copy editor who had come across the use of "woman" as an adjective before, it continues to grate on my nerves, and I'm not the only one. Not because it's wrong, but just because it's awkward and unnecessary, and inconsistent with everyone's refusal to use its logical corollary, "male president."

Anyway, I had been thinking a lot lately about the level of traffic on my blog, and I recalled that the Island of Doubt -- and many other blogs here -- tend to get lots of traffic whenever we post about any of several subjects that are only tangentially related, if at all, to science. Just about any post on atheism, for example, is good way to generate visits.

And it further occurred to me that writing about proper usage of the English language would be another sure-fire way to attract readers. I said to my wife, "I bet if I write something about 'woman president' I'd get all kinds of hits." After all, there really is no authority when it comes to what's proper English. It all boils down to what's popular. So everyone can be an expert. In this way, usage disputes are the polar opposite of science, where one really needs to know a field in some depth before evaluating an argument.

And I was right. Traffic was high though not record-breaking. But my comments section was much, much busier than normal. Many people pointed out, correctly, that "woman" has been used as an adjective for centuries. Other tried to equate the compound nouns we all use with adjective-noun complexes, and on and on. Some of the language was quite nasty.

Take it easy, folks. Who really cares? It's not like this is a subject of some gravitas, like the teaching of creationism in public schools or climate change mitigation. I certainly don't care all that much. Sure, I hate the term "woman president," but so what? Instead of just dismissing my opinion and moving on to something more important, people actually bothered to look up websites and dictionary references and fire back at me.

So, thanks for reading, but get a life.

From now on, however, I shall take the suggestion of commenter "Sparky" to heart: "Stick to science, dude."


More like this

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…
Yesterday I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and caught this very intriguing segment, Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong. Would you describe a bridge as fragile, elegant, beautiful, peaceful, slender, pretty? Or as strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, big, towering? Lera Boroditsky, an assistant…
Scottish linguist Geoffrey Pullum's take-down in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the venerable Strunk and White Elements of Style has received some notoriety. It's Elements' 50th anniversary this month, but Pullum isn't celebrating in "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice." I have a copy of…
To me, few things are more annoying than someone who nitpicks about grammar. Grammar is important, to be sure, but how much does it really matter if your sentences are grammatically "correct," as long as your message is communicated clearly? Michael Bach recently emailed me lamenting that often…

keep up the good work - man blogger.

By paul magnus (not verified) on 01 Nov 2007 #permalink

Nice save.

Pandora is given a box.
Pandora opens the box.
Pandora tries to stuff everything back into the box.

It doesn't work.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 02 Nov 2007 #permalink

I'm with Caledonian on this. This explanation of yours doesn't help at all. You continue to use inaccurate and misleading terminology, to sow confusion about relatively simple grammatical matters, and to assert opinions without adequate justification or reasonable argument. And, I should add, without reference to any relevant linguistic research or scholarship that could have a bearing on the matter. It's simply not true that "everyone can be an expert". That's just the kind of attitude that leads to absurdities like scientific creationism. You have become what you hate.

By James Parkin (not verified) on 05 Nov 2007 #permalink

So, thanks for reading, but get a life.

I'm no degreed expert in journalism, but you need to work on tone, I think. And on how to write a proper retraction.

By Daniel Murphy (not verified) on 03 Dec 2007 #permalink