By in Writing

Is It OK to Use 'Female' as a Noun?

Your English teacher may have acted as though language is a static thing, with a vocabulary fixed at the moment you entered first grade and grammar rules written in stone. But language is actually a pretty fluid thing. It evolves – much the same way as a living creature does.

We add new words. Old words take on new meanings. Sometimes a word even takes on a new function so that it belongs to more than one part of speech.

So while the English language was pretty much established by the 1500s, gazillions of words like ' selfie ' and ' vape ' have snuck into English faster than the members of the Red Pen Brigade can cross them out.

Those of use who feel strongly about the English language may be fascinated with the addition of new expressions like ' digital footprint' or ' keyboard warrior .' But that doesn't mean we have to be happy about people creating words like ' mahoosive ' when our language already had adjectives that express that meaning, nor with reducing a perfectly good word down to ' xlnt .'

Dictionaries Aren't Prescriptive

Sadly, dictionaries and grammars aren't really the rule books your English teacher made them out to be. They aren't so much an attempt to preserve the Queen's English is a form Her Majesty would recognize, as they are a description of our language today. (I'm still not sure whether I should thank lexicographer Erin McKean for teaching me that. I have to admit that when the realization hit I was pretty devastated!)

There's an interesting side effect to accepting that we as a people define the dictionary, rather than the lexicographers telling us what we can and cannot say. You see, each of us now has to take responsibility for how we use the English language. Each person who uses an expression like ' jel ' or ' YOLO ' is responsible for these expressions finding their way onto the hallowed pages of Webster's or the Oxford English Dictionary. Just sayin'!

'Female' as a Noun

So let me get to the meat of this discussion: is it OK to use 'female' as a noun? In your writing bio should you describe yourself as “a 27 year old female” when “a twenty-something wife and mother” would do the job just as well? By the same token if you're writing a news piece, is it OK to relate that the “female” who caused a commotion in Staples had just seen a snake crawl out from under the printer inks display?

There actually is a history of using “female” as a noun rather than an adjective. But as the Grammar Girl points out it is a usage normally confined to animals other than humans, such as lab rats or pedigreed dogs.

Even historically when women were labelled “females,” it has been seen as derogatory. Think of the way “females” were discussed when we were fighting for admission to university or professions like law and medicine, or for universal suffrage.

Do you want to be seen that way? Do you want to contribute to society seeing all women that way? Please people, let's remember to talk about girls and women! Female as a noun should be reserved for lower animals.

If we're careful how we speak, one day the entry in the dictionary that says, “a female person : a woman or a girl,” will be marked “obsolete.” But only if we choose our words carefully today.

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Image credit: Female symbol by Nemo/ Pixabay ( CC0 1.0 )

Note: This article is adapted from an earlier one that I had originally published on Bubblews

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OnlyErin6 wrote on January 4, 2015, 1:16 PM

It doesn't bother me at all. I AM a female. People also use the word "male" when describing men on the news. i.e. "37 year old white male."

Gina145 wrote on January 4, 2015, 5:13 PM

I'd rather not be described as a female, but it doesn't bother me too much. There's no escaping from change in the 21st century.

I do think that the English language is changing a lot faster now than when I was growing up. But then, so is everything else.

Ruby3881 wrote on January 4, 2015, 6:10 PM

I always think "suspect" or "patient" belongs on the end of a phrase like that, because this is where the trend seems to have come from. I don't so much find it offensive to be described as "female" because that is what I am.

But it seems to be a bit of laziness to drop the noun, and use the adjective in its place. And whether speaking of suspects, patients, dogs, or whatever, we do tend to be objectifying the male or female in question. We aren't so much talking about a living, breathing person as we are some sort of commodity.

There is no warmth or depth to saying "a female," and the phrase also lacks specificity compared to "wife" or "actress" or "writer."

Ruby3881 wrote on January 4, 2015, 6:15 PM

Things do definitely change a lot faster than when I was young! For example, I grew up in the era of vinyl records. We had just seen the tail end of the 8-track tape fad, and not so many years later everyone was interested in cassette tapes - particularly metal or digital cassette. But not much changed after that, even with the introduction of CDs and then DVDs.

In recent years technology has just made an astounding number of huge changes. We seem to have gone from really simple MP3 players to smart phones that can play a whole movie, in the blink of an eye!

Feisty56 wrote on January 4, 2015, 7:52 PM

I have to think about this for a bit, Ruby3881 . My first reaction was, "Why don't we just change the connotation with the use of 'female' as a noun to something positive, or at the very least not derogative?" I am still leaning in the direction, but want to consider it more closely for a bit.

bestwriter wrote on January 4, 2015, 8:18 PM

You are a fantastic female Ruby. emoticon :tongue: Now on a serious note I think it becomes a noun in a casual and friendly conversation but never when it is written down.

BodieMor wrote on January 4, 2015, 8:41 PM

I really enjoyed this article. Certainly I found it amusing and apropos... But as a writer focusing on the YA market, I have to keep up with the new expressions...

BodieMor wrote on January 4, 2015, 8:42 PM

I find myself agreeing, here...

MelissaE wrote on January 4, 2015, 9:24 PM

What an interesting concept. I hadn't thought of any of that before, but it seems like a logical argument. I need to mull this one over a bit.

mrsmerlin wrote on January 4, 2015, 9:40 PM

I agree that it should be used as a noun by now as it has been in general use for quite some time and although some think grammar should remain static there is a long history of it evolving

BarbRad wrote on January 4, 2015, 10:17 PM

I'm with you on this. I'm rather unhappy with new terms such as "on accident" replacing "accidentally." I learned that one from my kids, and thought only they were saying it until I started hearing adults using it and began seeing it on line.

celticeagle wrote on January 5, 2015, 1:25 AM

Seems like today rules are out the window and it is quite a free for all. In some ways I like it and in others I hate it.

Gina145 wrote on January 5, 2015, 5:31 AM

I grew up in the era of vinyl records too. I never used 8-track tape, but a friend's mother who is a music teacher still did. And in South Africa we didn't even have television until the mid-seventies. Sometimes I wish we'd never got it at all.

paigea wrote on January 5, 2015, 12:40 PM

In some mystery shopping reports I am required to use male and female. male, 167cm, black hair, etc.

iRun wrote on January 5, 2015, 5:46 PM

Gender to me is just a *part* of who we are. It is descriptive, not not a be-all end-all. I typically use the word girl or woman to describe somebody of my gender, and I use the words boy, guy, or man to describe someone of the other gender. Like you mentioned in your article, male and female are usually reserved when discussing animals, except for my animals, I call them 'my boys'.

iRun wrote on January 5, 2015, 5:47 PM

True, true. That may be why I shy away from using male or female as a description. There are way more exciting and interesting ways to describe somebody that conveys the same information.

iRun wrote on January 5, 2015, 5:50 PM

My daughter was born in 2004, way beyond 8 tracks, vinyl, cassette tapes, and even cds were about gone as a 'regular' thing. She looked really confused when I told her not too long ago that mom and dad didn't have iPods when we were 8. There WERE no iPods when we were 8.

iRun wrote on January 5, 2015, 5:54 PM

I don't mind new expressions, what I don't really like is text speak and what pre-teen to young adult age people tend to write in text, message, email, on PAPERS for class, and even at WORK. Some of it is atrocious, and the abbreviations such as YOLO and CUL8R drive me up a wall.

celticeagle wrote on January 5, 2015, 7:07 PM

People need to take sometime and get with the program.

Squidwhisperer wrote on January 15, 2015, 1:38 AM

I feel a bit slow but I'm not clear on your point. Typically the use of female as a noun occurs in such things as police reports, where male exists as well. Is it not maybe just a shorthand? As to the other "new" usages - yeah - it's always evolving. But you don't have to look far. The one that bugged me the most [and I hope I've got over] is "impact" as a verb, when "affect" almost always does what's needed.