I heard the lyrics of a song by Helen Reddy:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land
But I'm still an embryo
With a long, long way to go

The noun woman is used without an article throughout the song. Yet, when the singer says she is an embryo, the indefinite article is used. Is this usage of "woman" correct?

I think that "woman" in the song, is similar to "God" in the phrase "In God we trust." Am I right?

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    You can break any rule you like in a song (even use rhymes that don't rhyme). – Weather Vane Jan 19 at 11:20
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    I'm a bit surprised this (perfectly valid) usage is not explained in a dictionary. What did your research tell you? We have a list of dictionaries if you couldn't find them online. – Andrew Leach Jan 19 at 11:23
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    "Man" is also used without article this way, but not e.g. "dog": "The dog is man's best friend", but not "Dog is man's best friend." – bof Jan 19 at 12:38
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    Improvements to the question must be edited in, not left in comments. – Mari-Lou A Jan 19 at 13:22
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    It's being used as an adjective. Just like I am human or I am part machine. Or, more appropriately, I am all woman. – Jason Bassford Jan 19 at 18:14

woman uncountable noun Collins Dictionary

uncountable noun You can refer to women in general as woman ...the oppression of woman.

As in:

I am woman.

As a lyric it is allowed, and it is grammatically correct. As to your question:

I think that "woman" in the song, is similar to "God" in the phrase "In God we trust." Am I right?

Comparison to deity(ies) is difficult!

Man and men are sometimes used to refer to all human beings, including both males and females. Some people dislike this use, but if an artist were to write a song I am man (a variable noun), it would be grammatical too.


Short Answer

Is this usage of "woman" correct?

Yes, it is.

I think that "woman" in the song, is similar to "God" in the phrase "In God we trust." Am I right?

No. It's different.

Full Answer

In English, there's the 'common noun' and then there's the 'proper noun'.

According to Oxford Dictionary, Common noun is:

A noun denoting a class of objects or a concept as opposed to a particular individual. Often contrasted with proper noun

[Emphasis added.]

Proper noun is defined in the same dictionary as:

A name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with an initial capital letter, e.g. Jane, London, and Oxfam. Often contrasted with common noun

[Emphasis added.]

So, theoretically, these two are mutually exclusive. That is, if a noun is a common noun, it's not a proper noun, and vice versa.

But the problem is, some nouns such as 'god' can act as both depending on context.

In God we trust. [proper noun]

I believe in only one god. [common noun]

If we had an infinite amount of memory, we could be using only proper nouns. But we don't, so we need to be efficient in naming things by first making up classes of things and then naming only the classes, as opposed to naming individual things. Hence, the default use of common nouns.

But when, in a given context, there's only one thing in a class, we can still use that one thing as a proper noun, as in In God we trust.

Now, turning to 'woman', it is normally used only as a common noun, because it denotes a class of a certain type of people rather than an individual person.

Since the common noun 'woman' represents a class of individuals (i.e., it is countable), you need some kind of determiner such as 'a', 'the', 'some', etc. if you're to refer to an individual person, as in:

I'm a woman

Which means that "I belong to the class of women" or "I'm a member of the class of women".

But in the OP's song, the songwriter didn't want to convey this meaning, but something like "I represent the class of women itself".

Since 'common noun' by definition denotes a "class", you don't need any article before "woman" to convey the latter meaning. Therefore, the correct version here is

I am woman

And this use of woman is to be distinguished from that of God in In God we trust in that the former is still a common noun whereas the latter is a proper noun.

Fuller Answer

I forgot to mention that there's a degree to which a certain common noun can be used to convey the 'class' meaning.

Not all common nouns are created equal in this respect.

Compared to 'woman', 'human' is much more productive in representing the class than 'woman' is.

I am human

for example, is almost as productive as

I am a human

in this Ngram.

One extreme case of representing a class itself with a common noun rarely used to represent the class is the use of 'dancer' in the song titled 'Human' by 'The Killers':


Are we human or are we dancer?

My sign is vital, my hands are cold

And I'm on my knees

Looking for the answer

And here's the comment at genius.com for the line 'are we dancer?':

Flowers admits that “are we dancer” is ungrammatical, although it could be grammatical if we interpret “dancer” to be a species of animal, separate from the human animal.

Despite all the complaints about the line being ungrammatical, I'd simply view it as a case of legitimately, albeit unidiomatically, representing a class itself with a common noun (such as 'dancer') rarely used to represent the class.

  • Is “I am human” really a case of a noun being used without an article? Or just a plain ol’ adjective? For that matter, is “I am woman” a noun or an adjective? The lines are blurry: we can certainly compare both (“I am more human than you”, “She is the most woman artist there is” – perhaps even “?She is the womanest artist”), use them attributively (“That’s a very human/woman thing to do”), etc. No CGEL here at the office, but are there actually any tests that can draw a line here? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 at 9:44
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Whether 'human' in 'I am human' should be treated as a noun or an adjective I think is a whole new issue. As for the issue of whether to treat 'woman' in 'I am woman' as an adjective or a noun, CGEL doesn't discuss anything that I know of. I for one thinks the existence of your 'woman' examples (“She is the most woman artist there is”, “That’s a very woman thing to do”, etc.) is no more relevant in determining whether 'woman' in 'I am woman' is an adjective or a noun than that of 'I'm only human' is in determining whether 'human' in 'I am human' is an adjective or a noun. – JK2 Feb 21 at 15:31

As all answers already commented; the noun woman can either be preceded by the Indefinite Article a/an or by the Zero article _. I think a more appropriate example would be the root word of woman/man; human. one might say I am human to denote one belongs to that uncountable idea of humanity a type of mammal, similarly, one might say I am woman to denote one belongs to that uncountable idea of womanhood a type of human.

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