Q: I am an ophthalmologist who specializes in diseases and surgery of the retina. I refer to myself as a RETINA surgeon. It galls me when a colleague refers to himself as a RETINAL surgeon. To my thinking, this would describe a retina that does surgery. Please help me clear this up. I would like to announce your analysis to all of my colleagues.
A: I’m sorry to disappoint you. Yes, the word “retina” (like “heart,” “colon,” and so on) can be used as an attributive noun to modify another noun, like “surgeon.” But an adjective like “retinal” (or “cardiac,” “rectal,” etc.) can serve the same purpose.
The adjective in the phrase “retinal surgeon” does not identify the surgeon as a retina; it means the surgeon is concerned with or deals with the retina.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the adjective “retinal” as meaning “pertaining or relating to the retina.” The first recorded reference was published in 1838.
In short, it’s grammatically legitimate to modify a noun like “surgeon” either with another noun in an attributive relation (“retina surgeon”) or with the corresponding adjective (“retinal surgeon”). Either one is proper English.
Grammatical legitimacy aside, however, there may be conventions within the medical community that make one form of expression more common or acceptable than another (“neurosurgeon” may be preferred over “brain surgeon,” for example).
And some combinations of words sound more graceful than others. I agree with you that “retina surgeon” sounds far better than “retinal surgeon.”
But for other specialties, plain adjectives may be more felicitous (“dental surgeon” or “oral surgeon” rather than “mouth surgeon,” for example; “thoracic surgeon” rather than “thorax surgeon”).
I have a feeling that this answer will leave you unsatisfied.