Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Gratuitous modifiers – or the lady bus driver

with 9 comments

I, Robert Burns, took photo of my wife, Beverl...
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Look at this newspaper headline:

Woman doctor in car sex sessions

Well, at least it doesn’t say ‘lady doctor’ — but there are no circumstances in which this newspaper headline would have read:

Man doctor in car sex sessions

Descriptions of professional women are littered with gratuitous modifiers (see definition below). ‘Woman lawyer’,  ‘female bus driver’, ‘female airline pilot’ are typical examples. And yet we never read of a ‘woman nurse’, or a ‘female midwife’, or a ‘female secretary’. And there lies the rub.

We also refer to ‘male nurses’, ‘male midwives’, ‘male childminders’ and ‘male secretaries’ — and this is because they are other than the norm.  As a result, the silent question arises: are they really capable of being a ‘proper’ nurse, or midwife or childminder?

Conversely, there can be the subtle suggestion that being male makes them a cut above their female counterparts (in particular, this can be the case with nurses and sometimes secretaries).

Of course, it is far more frequently professional women who have these gratuitous modifiers thrust upon them, and the effect is always to undermine. A prime example of this is ‘woman doctor’, which makes for an interesting comparison with ‘male nurse’.

I would also question the ubiquitous description, ‘female suicide bomber’. Are we ever told about a ‘male suicide bomber’?

Say goodbye to the gratuitous modifier. If I want to be flown to Paris, I want someone qualified in the cockpit. In other words, a pilot. Or a pilot who happens to be a woman, no need to mention the fact, thanks for asking. But a lady pilot? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Didn’t she miss that last pilot’s exam because she had an important hair appointment?

To be technical, a modifier is a noun (the name of something or someone) used as an adjective (a describing word).

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

He or she — or they?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?


9 Responses

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  1. It will be a total revolution if people stop using these gratuitous modifiers! I think we are asking for the moon!

    I guess people will react like this if they begin writing only ‘suicide bomber’ also for ‘female’ suicide bombers: ‘Why didn’t you mention it in the article?! It was an important fact and you should have not suppressed it!’

  2. Hi, Vikas — sadly, I think you are probably right; in some cases, the way we use language changes only gradually.

    I know what you mean: people would want to know the gender of — in this case — a suicide bomber. However, my argument is that this usually becomes apparent very quickly, as there is usually a description nor of what the suicide bomber did, for example: ‘She walked into a crowded restaurant…’, or whatever. so the term ‘female’ is totally redundant (and gratuitous). Thanks, as always, for your interesting comments.


    25/12/2009 at 6:08 pm

  3. I was looking for creative writing sites and stumbled upon this blog; What an interesting discussion and it attracted me because I am particularly annoyed by the modifier “lady” when it precedes a noun – as in your example of “lady architect.” Equally irritating and condescending: addressing a female group of middle-aged women as “Girls.” Somehow, using “guys” with a group of men doesn’t have the same diminishing effect. I think I may have veered slightly off-topic there, but thanks for the opportunity to let off steam 🙂

    Jo-Anne Moore

    06/03/2010 at 9:42 pm

    • Hello, there, and welcome! Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. ‘Guys’ is an interesting one as it is so often used to address groups of both women and men (a trend that started in America, I think). I haven’t yet decided if it irritates me to be called a ‘guy’; I think it probably does! Watch this space…


      07/03/2010 at 8:11 am

  4. I’m not so sure they’re gratuitous in the cases cited. As you note Deb, these modifiers are used because the person somehow falls outside the norm — a social construction that changes with time and place. To play devil’s advocate, I’m glad that female suicide bombers are in the minority and hence their gender is noted. Also, there are many other norms that are noted in our language; for instance, a child “with disabilities” or a “person of color” (current U.S. usage). Until and unless we are all just “people” — though perhaps that’s species-ist — I believe such modifiers will be used.

    Maggie Manning

    07/03/2010 at 4:39 pm

    • Hi, Maggie

      Thanks very much for your comments. Your interpretation of ‘female suicide bomber’ is particularly interesting to me. I am more cynical and think that we are being invited to judge a woman more harshly than a man, whereas you see it as a way of highlighting something positive about women? I tend towards the former interpretation because female criminals are almost invariably treated more harshly by the media than their male counterparts.

      Whether or not a modifier is gratuitous can be a fine balance to strike, I think. An editor of an in-house local authority magazine I worked with a while back was tearing her hair out because she had been asked (ordered) to do a piece on the female driver of a refuse collection truck. The editor asserted it shouldn’t be news. However, as the driver was the first female to take on such a role for the authority, I thought it was justified (and potentially inspirational for other women).

      Thanks again, Maggie. It’s always good to hear from you.


      07/03/2010 at 5:04 pm

  5. Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I think it’s a positive; just that women are still in the minority, thank goodness, in terms of being suicide bombers. And I certainly agree it’s a fine balance. My gratuitous modifier is someone else’s informational — and even inspirational — point.

    Maggie Manning

    11/03/2010 at 2:07 pm

    • Sorry, Maggie — I knew what you meant, and didn’t mean to misinterpret you. Blame my clumsy choice of word.


      11/03/2010 at 2:24 pm

  6. Spotted in the Mail online today:

    No mercy: Woman judge jails Czech sham wedding bride who is pregnant with third child

    Followed by this (just in case we’re still not sure of the judge’s sex):

    A woman who became pregnant after being arrested over a sham marriage must give birth behind bars, a female judge has ruled.

    First: reverse the headline:

    Man judge jails Czech sham wedding bride…

    Don’t expect to be reading that headline anytime soon.

    Second: What’s the hidden agenda? A woman should be more sympathetic? It’s surprising that a ‘female judge’ was able to apply the law objectively? It would be all right if a ‘man judge’ had ‘no mercy’, but a bit uncomfortable when it’s a woman who’s a bit lacking in the compassion department? Or simply that she’s not really a fully fledged, proper judge — merely a ‘woman judge’. (Obviously, in the Mail’s lexicon, ‘judge’ is an exclusively male noun in need of punctilious modification in the interests of grammatical accuracy when, harrumph, a woman becomes involved.)

    I don’t like taking the Mail seriously, and try not to, but its UK circulation is about two million and it inevitably influences the cultural zeitgeist. (Negatively, imho.)


    01/02/2011 at 1:27 pm

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