Which way of describing a women's t-shirt is grammatically correct out of the following two descriptions? 'A white women's t-shirt featuring a flowery design.' or 'A women's white t-shirt featuring a flowery design'.

I think 'white women's t-shirt' is correct as I read it as a women's t-shirt which is white but my colleagues disagree as they read it as a t-shirt for white women.

Any help help settling this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  • 2
    I tend to agree with your colleagues. It sounds quite ridiculous to say a white women's T-shirt and even more ridiculous if you say a purple women's T-shirt – WS2 May 19 '17 at 10:26
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    Commas and articles were pretty much invented for this. "A white, women's t-shirt" should be unambiguous. – 1006a May 19 '17 at 12:28
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    As a native British English speaker the meaning "a t-shirt for white women" didn't even occur to me until I read it in your question body. Personally I'd lean towards "white women's t-shirt" as being the correct order, but bizarrely this disagrees with WS2 (who is also a native BrE speaker so we normally agree on this sort of thing). – AndyT May 19 '17 at 16:06
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    The problem is that it can be ambiguous -- Because women is a noun being used as an adjective, it is unclear whether white applies to women or t-shirt. Being in the US where we have a lot of problems with race, the phrase A white women's t-shirt instantly seemed racist to me. Because white is much less common as a noun than an adjective, A women's white t-shirt is much less ambiguous. Or, you could avoid the ambiguity completely and go with @1006a 's suggestion of including a comma. – Roger Sinasohn May 19 '17 at 17:21
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    Notwithstanding @Andy T's comment, a women's white T-shirt seems to me the perfectly natural unambiguous way of saying it in Britain too. – WS2 May 19 '17 at 19:12

The noun "t-shirt" is modified by the adjective "white" and the noun adjunct (a noun that modifies another noun in the same way as an adjective) "women's". Therefore adjectival order is not the source of the error.

The source of the error lies solely in the ambiguity, where the adjective "white" can be understood to modify wither "women" or "t-shirt".

You can resolve the ambiguity via the use of a comma e.g. "white, women's t-shirt" or by changing the word order "a women's white t-shirt".

Sources: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/noun_adjunct http://www-01.sil.org/linguistics/glossaryoflinguisticterms/WhatIsANounAdjunct.htm

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    The operative rule here is not the above list, but rather the fact that "white women" has a distinct meaning (women whose skin color is "white"). So the two orderings are not simply more or less idiomatic but mean two rather different things. – Hot Licks May 19 '17 at 11:32
  • @Jim Strictly, this word order I quoted IS correct. It is ambiguous, but that doesn't mean it is not right. I have edited my answer to reflect your comment. Mari-LouA: "women's" refers to "made for the use of women" - which is the purpose of the shirt. – LinkVanyali May 19 '17 at 12:25
  • @Mari-LouA You probably should have downvoted, because I was completely wrong. I have edited my answer again to account for this. – LinkVanyali May 19 '17 at 19:15
  • I don't think your answer was completely wrong; order of these adjectives (or adjective and adjective-like thing) can be seen as fitting into the system, if you think of one or the other as a "type" of t-shirt. That is, you'd decide the order depending on whether you're specifying the style/size of a color of shirt, or the color of a style of shirt. "The kindergartners were supposed to wear blue polos, but the store only had women's white t-shirts left" vs "We're introducing a new type of shirt in the catalog, and I can't decide if it's 'a white women's t-shirt' or 'a white knit top' ". – 1006a May 19 '17 at 19:36

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