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August 23rd, 2006

Woman as an adjective / I personally, I myself

by Barbara Wallraff

Jennifer Goodheart, of Amherst, Mass., writes: “I’ve noticed what appears to be an increase in the use of the word ‘woman’ as an adjective -- such as references to ‘woman athletes’ and ‘woman executives.’ I have not, however, heard references to ‘man athletes’ or ‘man executives.’ When I hear ‘woman’ used in this way, it stands out as bad grammar would. But this usage may be older than I think. When did it begin, and more to the point, when it will end?”

Dear Jennifer: Sorry, but it isn’t going to end in your lifetime. “Woman” has been in use as both an adjective and a noun since before Columbus discovered America. Then again, so has “female.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, the English religious reformer John Wycliffe wrote both “a womman widowe” and “God ... maal and femaal he made hem of nought” in books he published in 1382. (At that time, “woman widow” wasn’t redundant, since men who had lost their wives were sometimes called widows rather than widowers.) You’re right that “man” isn’t used in an equivalent way. But, of course, until fairly recently, the great majority of athletes and executives were male, so there was no need to add any adjective to make their sex clear.

While we’re on the subject, something that’s odd about “woman” as an adjective is that when it’s used with a plural noun, it should be plural: “women athletes,” “women executives.” That might seem unsurprising until you reflect on constructions like “mother bears” (not “mothers bears”) and “child actors” (not “children actors”). I can’t explain why “woman” is a special case -- I can only tell you that it is.

Donald Jesuele, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: “My wife and I constantly see and hear ‘I personally’ and ‘I myself’ in newspapers and on the radio and TV. It’s been a long time since high school, but we both believe we were taught that this is improper grammar. Are we right or wrong?”

Dear Donald: Mostly, you’re right. The problem with the phrases you object to is that “personally” and “myself” rarely do any work -- they just take up space. For example, here’s a sentence from a first-person feature article published earlier this month in The New York Sun: “The stench of alcohol permeates the air, a sour unmistakable odor that I personally can’t stand.” Could the reporter detest the stench of alcohol in any way other than “personally”? The word serves no purpose.

But when people are trying to distinguish, say, their own opinions from the line they might be expected to take as loyal employees, “personally” can come in handy. From a recent Miami Herald story: “Elected leaders in Coral Gables have had the same salary for 20 years. ... ‘I personally think we are behind the times as far as compensation,’ (Commissioner Ralph) Cabrera said.” Cabrera is making it clear that he’s speaking unofficially, not in his professional capacity as a commissioner. When situations like this come up, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I personally” or “I myself.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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