Person, place, or thing

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

I was in elementary school when I first learned about nouns. The teacher said that a noun was a person, place, or thing. Flipping this around, you can say that people are nouns. You might think this is obvious, even in an era in which grammar has been sidelined to some extent. But in my line of work, we frequently encounter authors who think that people are adjectives.

We have all seen this on television or read in the newspaper: law enforcement agents describe a “black male in his twenties” or a “white female in her fifties.” Another category in which this is prevalent is the scientist or doctor using an adjective to categorize a person, for example, “the subject was a depressive.” What these professions have in common is their emphasis on facts. There is the misconception, perhaps, that you are letting your emotions run away with you if you refer to a person as a noun. It lends an air of objectivity to what can really be subjective interpretation of facts.

A puzzling corollary to this is the recent phenomenon of using “woman” as an adjective but not “man.” We have “woman doctors” and many hope that Hillary Clinton will be the first “woman president.” But we wouldn’t call Jimmy Carter a “man president” and my father a “man professor.” I can only guess that this confusion of nouns and adjectives is because in days past being a female anything signified to some people inferiority, if not being downright laughable.

Who cares? Does it matter to anyone but editors and others who uphold the laws of grammar whether we use nouns or adjectives to describe people? I think it should.

In the first case of the misplaced adjective, calling a person an adjective—a diabetic, a schizophrenic—limits his or her humanity. It literally depersonalizes and also views someone through the lens of illness alone. The current trend in consumer health and psychology is to get away from this approach and say a person has schizophrenia or diabetes but is not equated to it.

In the second case, using a different turn of phrase for women and men doesn’t help grammar or equality. I shouldn’t need a different part of speech—woman editor—from that of a man in my profession. I am a woman (noun) and an editor (noun). When you combine these two elements, I am a female editor (noun and the adjective that modifies it) not a woman editor (noun noun).

I like the certitude and exactitude of adjectives and noun being in their rightful places. Years ago, a group formed to promote what it saw was the uplifting value of people was called simply Up with People. While I may not adhere to its beliefs on political matters, I share the idea that people should be celebrated. And so should places and things. In other words, up with nouns!

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