English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Why is it common to hear "women writers" or "woman doctor" but not "man author"? Isn't an adjective required in both cases, thus "female guitarist" and "male accountant"? I am asking about why the noun woman is used instead of the adjective female and why this error seems to be made only in relation to women, not men. This is not a question about the appropriateness of such qualifiers.

share|improve this question
You do have "man/male" attached to some job descriptions, like a male nurse for instance. But usually "female" is attached to jobs that have traditionally only been held by males, so a woman to have that job is considered "exotic" enough that it warrants pointing out to it. A "male nurse" on the other hand might describe an individual which is a) stronger, relevant for psych clinics, or b) someone you might not trust with young women. But normally, being male or female does not make you more of a writer or less of a doctor, and so on. It's a superfluous attachment. – Corina Jun 30 '13 at 10:23
An adjective isn't "required" in either case. Writers attach adjectives when the additional words will help make the writing more clear and rich, which is why we're more likely to see these particular adjectives when they refer to a person who is in a field typically dominated by the opposite sex (e.g., female soldier, male elementary school teacher). They help prevent the reader from making an erroneous assumption. – J.R. Jun 30 '13 at 15:21
It's definitely not a grammar issue. There is no grammar rule that insists on qualifying female author when the writer is a woman. – J.R. Jul 1 '13 at 10:37
It is not an error to use a noun to modify another noun: it is a normal English construction. It is hard to answer "why" an error is committed when in fact no error is committed. – MετάEd Jul 4 '13 at 16:58
Leaving aside the incorrect notion that using ‘woman’ or ‘women’ as noun adjuncts is somehow incorrect, the crux of the question, if I'm understanding it correctly, is: why do we commonly use ‘woma/en’ as a noun adjunct, but never ‘ma/en’? An interesting question indeed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 13 '13 at 15:44

You do hear 'male writer' and 'male musicians' only much less often.

This is unfortunately due to most professions being dominated by men leading to women being treated unfairly which will in turn raise a debate. Men are the norm in these professions so there isn't usually a specific detail to discuss (which is why you don't 'hear' it)

You also hear it more often with ethnic minorities for example in the UK 'Black police officers'

This is for many reasons such as there being less black police officers than there should be which raises a debate, and in turn you hear it.

To be honest this is more a question of society than language, but I hope my answer makes sense :)

share|improve this answer
Trow has his hero Peter Maxwell addressing the local Detective Sergeant as 'woman policeman' (even after they get married). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '13 at 16:05
In the UK, up until very recently police men were called PC Smith, and police women were called WPC Smith. – Aaron Jun 30 '13 at 18:38
Not all of them. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '13 at 19:23
The prefix "Woman" in front of female officers' ranks has been obsolete since 1999. Until then all female police constables were WPC. A police man refers to a police constable, detectives which we call 'CID' were DC Smith for a man, and WDC Smith for a female – Aaron Jun 30 '13 at 19:29
It was the name 'Smith' I was naughtily querying. I love the way SH in the 4th episode of Sherlock refers to Eileen Adler (aka 'The Woman') as "the woman - the 'Woman' woman". – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '13 at 19:32

While the last commenter is right, using "woman" to precede a noun is correct (it is in this usage an "apposite noun")

This column by William Safire goes into the issue with a bit more detail and context

I understood your question just fine--in fact, I was seeking the same answer when I stumbled upon this page.

share|improve this answer

I think there are two reasons:

No matter if it is good, bad, or indifferent we as people form an image in our head when we hear something. If that "norm" image falls against the grain of what the author is trying to convey then they may proceed the word with a descriptor to offer a different picture. If you take the example of nurse most people automatically think woman. So if an author was talking about a guy, they might say male nurse - so that your mental image is correct(ed).

The second reason is to bring light or celebrate something. If the author wants to highlight a group, minority, anything, he/she may put a descriptor in front to emphasize what the article about. If the author was told to write a monthly article on women authors, then that phrase will come up more.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.