A point finer than a goose's down

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its autumn assizes with a motion from Jeff Horner in Mableton, Ga. He asks the court to abolish the use of “woman” as an adjective. Specifically, he moves to end the identification of Sarah Palin as a “woman candidate.”

He writes: “There is a perfectly good English adjective to describe someone with two X chromosomes: FEMALE! Yet repeatedly, during coverage of the Palin nomination, writers and pundits referred to her as a ‘woman candidate' or the first Republican ‘woman vice-presidential nominee.' I teach high school students, and I am fighting a losing battle with the 24-hour grammatically scary news media on the point.”

An uneasy age

The court commiserates with Reader Horner but can offer little more than a shoulder to cry on. The problem stumped even the unstumpable Henry Fowler. In his seminal “Modern English Usage,” he grumbled that “to call a woman a female is resented as impolite,” but “it is not reasonable to extend this resentment to the adjective use of ‘female.'”

The problem of sexual identification equally stumped the eminent Fowler's eminent successor, R.W. Burchfield. He complained: “The whole question of gender distinctions in occupational and related names is sensitive, verging on explosive. All possible ‘solutions' introduce uglinesses or new inconsistencies or leave false expectations in their wake. Ours is an uneasy age linguistically.”

Sexual distinction

That uneasiness may be running its course. The court asks a rhetorical question: How many occupations still carry a sexual distinction? The only ones that come immediately to mind are “actress” and perhaps “waitress.”

Such nouns as “poetess” and “authoress” have gone to the slag heap. The court's impression is that such tortured constructions as “chairwoman” and “chairperson,” or the truncated “chair,” have gone to the semantic scrap heap, but the court would welcome advice. When Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937, she was an “aviatrix.” Today's biographical dictionaries call her an “aviator.” Little by little, the world moves semantically on.

Reader Bob Smatt in Aiken, S.C., asks the court for an order defining “inapt” as distinguished from “inept.” The distinction appears to be one of degree, like the distinction between a little tipsy and pretty mellow. The Encarta dictionary thus defines “inapt” as “not appropriate” and “inept” as “totally inappropriate.” For the record, a witty rejoinder may be “apt,” but nothing is ever “ept.” Seems unfair, but one moves uncertainly on.

Verb abduction

Reader John Ringland in Hillsborough, N.C., moves for an injunction forbidding the employment of “to inform” as a transitive verb.

As a Horrid Example, he cites an advertisement for Pfizer products: “When does your perspective inform a breakthrough?” The petitioner replies, “Huh?” The court says, “Aaarrgghh!”

Regretfully, the court acknowledges that “to inform” can mean “to give character or essence to,” as in, “the principles that inform modern teaching,” but this abduction of an innocent verb cannot be condoned.

Ken Gelsen in Maple Valley, Wash., seeks an injunction against “try and” in the sense of “try to.”

In evidence he cites a novelist whose characters at one point are about “to try to break into the place.” A few pages later the hero says of his damsel in distress, “I have to try and save her!”

On that note …

The plaintiff contends that the conjunctive “try and” means something completely different from the infinitive “try to.” His point is finer than the down of a Cantonese goose, but fine points will always be a writer's delight. The court concurs and takes a week's recess.