Monday, November 26, 2007

Distinctive features

Am I allowed to say that some language choices annoy me? How about if I promise not to call them pet peeves?

A while ago Mxrk posted about Paul Brians' list of non-errors that are commonly called errors. It's a decent list full of forms that occur regularly and which function within many constraints of standard English grammar.

But I take partial issue with one point Brians makes. Regarding the ongoing argument that attributive woman is incorrect and female should be used because it is an adjective while woman is a noun Brians explains

It may be inconsistent, but the pattern of referring to females as women performers, professionals, etc. is very traditional, dating back at least to the 14th century. People who do this cannot be accused of committing an error.

It's true this is not a grammatical error. So I'll go along with it that far.

But there is still something jarring about the form. I'm trusting my naked ear when I expect 'female doctor' or 'female pilot' or 'female police officer' to follow an already established relevance of the sex of the person. So I would expect 'female-X' to be used in contrast to and with the co-occurrence of 'male-X' -- not just plain ol' 'X'.

But I would expect 'woman-X' to occur as a privative feature: there are doctors and some of them are woman doctors; We've had presidents and we might one day have a woman president.

The issue here is what I see as the unnecessary qualifier. Consider the label given to models that weigh more than 90 lbs. 'Plus-size models'. Is this necessary? Well I expect that in a few years it'll change. Eventually full-figured will lose the ridiculous connotation of surplus and it'll make sense for a model with a complete body as opposed to those half-figured models out there.

And then will this →
be called a plus-ugly model? Or would that be minus-pretty?

And let me just call attention to my own bias in a discussion of models that focuses on female models only. There are plenty of man-models out there that make me feel insecure with my own plus-size/minus-handsome-ness.


  1. Where does the construction "lady-X" fall into your scale of annoyance? Lady doctor for example.

  2. Lady-X is more jarring to me than woman-X because lady can carry an overly precious sense.

    The typical intention of ladylike (as I assume it to be) is far too patronistic by my estimation.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.