Can nouns be adjectives?

The Associated Press recently tweeted the following style tip:

Use female as an adjective, not woman: She was Alaska’s first female governor.

The Johnson column in the Economist picked up on this, and notes that A woman can be anything – except an adjective. The journalist who wrote the piece (Robert Lane Greene) did a really good job explaining the reasons why woman in woman president is a noun, not an adjective. I won’t repeat them here, except to point out that one important argument was left out, namely the fact that the modifying noun can be pluralised, as in women presidents. This clearly shows that woman in woman president cannot be an adjective, because adjectives can’t be pluralised in English.

Why do many people want to say that woman in woman president is an adjective, or that on the shelf in the book on the shelf ‘functions as an adjective’? The reason is that the position that adjectives occupy before nouns in noun phrases (after any determiners that may be present), and the position occupied by preposition phrases after the noun are positions where modifiers of nouns can occur. Note that modifier is a function label, not a form (i.e. category) label. Now, because noun modifiers are typically adjectives, it is tempting to assign the label ‘adjective’ to any phrase that modifies a noun. However, this is misguided: saying that woman in woman president is an adjective is to confuse the function of woman (modifier) with its form (noun). For further discussion, have a look at my earlier blog post on this topic.

Incidentally, the Economist piece ends with this observation:

Good grammar is worth serious analysis, if writers and editors are to avoid clogging up their brains with superstitions, and passing those superstitions on as ironclad rules. Alas, most schoolchildren, if taught such analysis at all, were joylessly taught a somewhat misleading system of “diagramming” sentences (the Reed-Kellogg system) that they endeavoured to forget as soon as it was no longer required. Today, not even that is taught in many schools. Linguists continue learning things about how English grammar works, but their research findings have utterly failed to find their way into school curricula. So even educated people—even the authors of the AP Stylebook—are a bit at sea when it comes to this kind of analysis.

I agree with the first sentence, but it’s no longer true that research findings from linguistics are not making their way into school curricula. As readers will know, this blog is linked to the Englicious website, a free resource library for teachers of English in primary and secondary schools. The materials on this site are inspired by research on English grammar carried out at UCL and elsewhere. Many other linguists are also involved in ensuring that research results make their way into the curriculum. Have a look at Dick Hudson’s Educational Linguistics page to get an idea of the work that is carried out in this area.

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