Wordwatch Towers

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

Redundant female

with 15 comments

"North Hampton is a Domestic violence fre...
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I might have already told you that I don’t read Esquire magazine. Well, when I wasn’t reading the latest issue (in mitigation, it was a piece about domestic violence) I came across something as irritating as the last thing I found really, really irritating (which was exceptionally irritating). Here it is:

“Armed police would only be called if the father specifically said that he was armed,” explains a female officer with 20 years’ experience on the Metropolitan Police’s murder squad.

Modifiers don’t come much more drenched in gratuitousness than that.

If anyone can come up with one good reason (of which I’ll be the final judge, natch) as to why the modifier ‘female’ has been used there, I will officially award them with — er — some kind of awardy thingy.

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

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?

Am I allowed to say that?


15 Responses

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  1. I can’t get past “armed police.” Do unarmed police try to talk you into putting down the weapon and giving up? Perhaps by suggesting that a life of crime is not the way to go?

    Michael Farrell

    10/07/2010 at 8:47 am

    • …yes, or offering incentives. I’d forgotten how strange it must seem to people from countries such as America that most of our police are unarmed. Special armed officers are called in when deemed necessary.


      10/07/2010 at 8:51 am

      • Very strange indeed.

        Because I could use an awardy thingy on my fireplace mantle, I suggest that the writer used “female,” in an article about violence toward women, to lend credence to the cop’s assessment. It’s like having a black person speak about racism or a poor person speak about the recession: their opinions have added weight and veracity from their real-life experiences. This cop has, it seems, 20 years’ experience dealing with violence toward women, from the women’s side. She’s not just spouting off as a no-nothing outsider.

        Michael Farrell

        10/07/2010 at 4:41 pm

        • Ah — close, but no cigar. Hold on, I just need to turn off my red herring alarm bell so I can hear myself speak.

          My fingers remain unprised from the awardy thingy.

          You wouldn’t have known this, but the piece is mainly about domestic violence towards children. However, even it were a piece solely about violence against women, I disagree with your justification for the modifier ‘female’:

          Why would being female add credence to her assessment? It’s just a straightforward rule that anyone could apply: man has gun, send armed police. Man doesn’t have gun, don’t send armed police.

          She’s not being asked about her ‘perspective as a woman’, she’s being asked about procedures: the fact that she is a woman is (or should be) immaterial. She is not in the equivalent position of a ‘black person being asked to speak about racism’. And anyway, why would she have any more ‘real-life experience’ of domestic violence than a male colleague?

          To apply your argument further, if just the fact of being a woman makes her remarks somehow more worth hearing, doesn’t that do a disservice to her male colleagues? For all we know, they may have far greater insight and empathy than Mrs Procedure Expert.

          The butler will shortly be delivering a compensatory cake. Don’t tip him: he’s getting ideas above his station.


          10/07/2010 at 5:11 pm

          • I meant because moms are always more empathetic about childrens. *running away with thingy*

            Michael Farrell

            10/07/2010 at 5:26 pm

  2. I love this kind of quibbling over one statement. It really teaches. I especially liked the pickup of armed city police. Are there any other kind in the U.S.? But the adjective makes them seem more menacing and authoritative.

    But I like the female with 20 years in the trenches. It gives me a picture, it makes the story more credible and real for me. Yeah, unnecessary but the statement would be so much less without the qualifiers. Have you noticed how perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs are often cold to the touch?

    For a future post, let’s look at the use of “only.” It is a complex issue. In this story, should it be “police would be called ONLY if the father…?”

    And do we really need “specifically”?

    Let’s do this more often — Deconstruct a single paragraph or statement to understand all the things we do incorrectly, insensitively, illogically and otherwise when we write.


    10/07/2010 at 5:36 pm

    • Hi, Don — nice to see you again, and thanks for taking the time to make those interesting comments. I understand what you’re saying about the need to make writing engaging, but I don’t like it being done in this way. I also think it’s a lazy device.

      As you say, ‘specifically’ is not required there, but commonly used when speaking, and I’m presuming they have published an accurate transcript of what she said.

      That ‘only’ thing is interesting. The Oxford Dictionary of English says its placement has ‘occupied grammarians for 200 years’. It goes on to say that in everyday English, the ‘impulse is to state “only” as early as possible in the sentence, generally just before the verb’. It notes that the result is rarely ambiguous.

      Thanks again, Don. Very interesting!


      10/07/2010 at 6:10 pm

  3. Well,if it were about women victims of domestic violence, then I would say a fair way to handle it would’ve been “Armed police would only be called if the father specifically said that he was armed,” explains a female officer with 20 years’ experience on the Metropolitan Police’s murder squad working specifically on cases involving women victims…
    But since it’s a men’s mag catering to men, they probably don’t care about being sensitive to women. My guesses as to why the writer felt it necessary to show she’s female is A)There are more male police than female, B) Some sense that the instinct to protect children is more a maternal one since women bear children. But mainly A. because females are a novelty.


    10/07/2010 at 5:38 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — I’m always glad to see you here. I, too, was thinking about the ‘men’s magazine environment’ in which the journos work. It’s an interesting point. The editor is male and the journo who wrote this piece is also male. In addition, I think you may have a point about the journalist’s reasoning as to why he should flag up the fact that the officer was female. No excuse though, in my opinion. Thanks again.


      10/07/2010 at 6:15 pm

      • Deborah, are you then canceling your subscription to Esquire in an umbrage-filled note?

        Michael Farrell

        10/07/2010 at 7:08 pm

        • Alas and alack, I am not the said subscriber. My umbragicity is therefore immaterial.


          10/07/2010 at 7:12 pm

  4. I don’t know if the example was from an essay or even fiction, but as journalistic writing it was generally poor. Besides the unnecessary gender label (It was true, but so what?) the 20 years etc. statement could have been conveyed with the two words “veteran officer”, and the “specifically” was required because it was a direct quote where it would have been more efficient to just state the facts. The officer’s quote didn’t add to the quality of the story, so it shouldn’t have been chosen.

    If it’s journalism, then every pica, pixel or second (depending on your medium of publication) is precious. Wasted space is anathema.

    Invisible Mikey

    10/07/2010 at 10:11 pm

    • Hi Mikey — lovely to see you here again. I’m so glad that you and Mrs I got the keys to your beautiful new house at last.

      Yes, you said somewhere else that ‘less is more’ — that’s true of so many things in life, not least writing. In his essay Politics and the English Language, the novelist and essayist George Orwell said ‘Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about’. I think he wrote the shortest (appropriately enough) and best style guide (not that he would have called it that and would probably have hated the term):

      1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
      2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
      3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
      4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
      5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
      6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

      Thanks again, Mikey.


      11/07/2010 at 10:47 am

  5. Heh. This is interesting. Because generations of German feminists would be ecstatic about the “female officer”. Granted in German there is a truly female form to most words, like “Polizist” (officer of the law) and “Polizistin” (female officer of said law), with the male form being the general form for speaking about officers in general. What I never understood about this fight for forms – what does it matter if people are still chauvinist and sexist but use the politically correct term?


    11/07/2010 at 12:00 am

    • Hi, TaleTellerin — thank you very much. I always find your insights into how the German language works so interesting. I see that the male form is used to ‘include’ women.

      And you are so right about people paying lip service by using the correct language while at the same time retaining their racist/sexist/ageist beliefs. Sometimes, politically correct language can provide a convenient cover for such people. Interestingly, the opposite can also be true: people who have never entertained a sexist or racist thought in their lives can unthinkingly use language that may suggest otherwise because such language is so ingrained. But I also think that when we begin to question the language we use, we inevitably begin to question our attitudes and beliefs. No bad thing.


      11/07/2010 at 10:59 am

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