The Grammarphobia Blog

Author! Author!

Q: What bothers me is how the use of “author” has changed. I thought it was a “relational” noun, so Dickens should be referred to as the author of David Copperfield, not merely as an author. It also hurts my ears to hear someone referred to as simply a mother, rather than someone’s mother.

A: A “relational noun” is one that implies a relationship, and that relationship is often expressed in the possessive.

“Leg,” for example, can be described as relational because it usually belongs to someone or something, as in “John’s leg,” or “the leg of the chair.”

The same can be said of a word like “mother”; it often appears in phrases like “John’s mother,” or “the mother of three.”

But relational nouns can also be nonrelational – that is, independent – when used without reference to a possessor.

For example, in a sentence like “He hurt his leg,” the word “leg” is relational, but in “The leg has large major veins” it’s independent.

And in the sentence “She is John’s mother,” the word “mother” is relational, but in “She is a mother” it’s independent.

In the same way, a noun like “author” or “composer” can be relational (“author of a book,” or “composer of the symphony”), but it can be independent too (“She’s a popular author,” or “He’s an arranger and composer”).

Similarly, words that we would never think of as relational, like “flower” and “season,” become relational when used with “favorite”: “Her favorite flower is the rose” … “The favorite season of lovers is spring.”

The only relational noun I’m aware of that can’t be independent too is “sake.” This word is always used in a possessive phrase because it always belongs to someone or something.

We say “for heaven’s sake,” “for goodness’ sake,” “for the sake of my family,” “for the children’s sake,” and so on. “Sake” is never used without reference to a possessor.

In short, “author” can be a relational noun or an independent one. It’s grammatically correct to say either “She’s the author of Middlemarch” or “Eliot is a great author.”

Writers have been using “author” in a nonrelational way for centuries. As John Gay wrote in his Fables (1726): “No author ever spar’d a brother.”

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