or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Not Again

There are things about English that drive me crazy, not omissions but built-in features that shouldn't be there, and here are two of them.

1) I don't remember where this came up, but I saw it again in print: "woman" as an adjective. I can't help but think I've ranted about this before, but I also can't be bothered to check, and at any rate it's been a while, so here goes again. If we feel the need to specify the gender when describing a job a man holds (because otherwise one would assume it's a woman), we naturally prefix with the adjective "male": male nurse, male stripper, whatever. But when we do the same thing for women, we don't say "female", we say "woman": woman doctor, woman priest, whatever. Why? WHY? It's horrible.

On reflection, I see that we do the same thing with "child": "child prodigy", "child actor". But it doesn't feel the same somehow, probably because there isn't a matching adjectival form for "child": neither "childish" nor "childlike" are appropriate. "Male" and "female" are exactly parallel, as are "man" and "woman", and it seems to me that the rule ought to be that we use an adjective where an adjective might logically be used. "Female doctor", if you must, but not "woman doctor", which somehow sounds condescending, which is probably the point, or worse, like a doctor who specializes in women, as a brain surgeon operates only on brains.

2) Here is a bit from an ad on page 4 of the newest issue of Ready Made magazine:

See that first line? "Average-cup-of-joe drinker." I love that. I love the way English ropes words together with hyphens to make it indisputably obvious that a phrase is being turned into an adjective (as it is here), a noun, or whatever. But look at the last two lines!

"Coffee house" is a two-word noun that we could hyphenate together if we needed to make them into an adjective: "coffee-house ambiance", for instance. But the rule in English is that if we have an unhyphenated multi-word phrase that we need to hyphenate together with another word, we only put a hyphen between the last two words in a sort of trailer-hitch composition, leading to such horrors as that seen in the ad, "coffee house-quality drinks". And it grinds my gears. It's the rule, it's how it's done in English, but it looks so obviously wrong. How easy it would be to fuse everything together, as we normally do, with hyphens into a single phrase!

I am tempted when I write to just do it the way I want to, the way that it ought to be in English, the way that looks correct. But I don't, because that way lies anarchy. Instead I avoid such constructions altogether: I write around them. Sad that it has to be this way, but such is language.


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