The Grammarphobia Blog

Strictly a female female

Q: I’m a female criminalist who’s curious about your position on the use of “woman” as an adjective. I’m not a language stickler, but a phrase like “woman doctor” drives me nuts! I just think it sounds awkward and uneducated. Is it too late to stop this trend?

A: “Woman” is now so widely used as an adjective (or, to use Henry Fowler’s term, a noun-adjective) that I think the trend is unstoppable. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t include the usage yet, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does.

I prefer “female,” but I believe many people avoid the term because it sounds more sexually charged or more clinical than “woman.” Despite my preference for “female,” the use of “woman” to modify a noun isn’t a recent phenomenon.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to about 1300 of the noun “woman” functioning as an adjective. The earliest citation mentions a “woman frend.” Other examples are “woman sexe,” “woman modestie,” “woman-nature,” “woman-wit,” “woman-doctor,” “woman-friend,” and “woman teacher.”

My favorite is this 17th-century quote from Dryden: “A Woman-Grammarian, who corrects her Husband for speaking false Latin.”

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