Lone Modifications

Adjectives may agitate

Adjectives play many roles. They can tell us which box on the gift table is being discussed—the “blue” box—so we don’t have to guess, for example. They can give us more details about something or someone—the “tall” stranger” or the “artisanal” chocolate—to make an image or description more vivid. And they can make something more (or less) than others of its ilk—the “smaller” peach or the “expensive” watch.

Some adjectives also effectively say “this is different from what you might think.” If you’re describing your garden crop, for example, you might want to say “I’ve got some great purple tomatoes,” lest your friends think of the “usual” tomatoes, which are not purple.

When it comes to describing people, however, using an adjective for one thing and not another can be dangerous. Adjectives are too often applied to only one kind of person—the “usual” kind. Journalists sometimes write “a female police officer,” for example, when they would almost never write “a male police officer.” It’s almost as if the “default” position for “police officer” is male, and it needs modification only when the officer is not.

The tendency to use certain adjectives for only some groups and not others can be interpreted as sexist, racist, or homophobic.

Let’s say, for example, that two women are being married in New York State. If an article is discussing differences between two ceremonies, one performed for lesbians and one performed for a man and a woman, it would be fine to refer to one as “the lesbian wedding.” But if the other wedding is referred to only as “the wedding” instead of “the heterosexual wedding,” the implication is that the adjective need be applied only to the “not regular” wedding. And if the story is merely about two people getting married, using a modifier like “same-sex” wedding implies that there is something “not usual” about this wedding. Sometimes a wedding is just a wedding.

This happens, too, with race. Where race is relevant, it should be mentioned, of course, although the relevance of using it should be clear to the reader. But frequently, only the people who are not white are specifically identified; an article might mention that “at the pro-immigration rally, 75 people were arrested, 25 of them Hispanic,” without mentioning what race the other 50 were. It makes it look as if the writer thought that readers considered all people mentioned to be white unless they were told otherwise. If you use a modifier for one group in a discussion, use one for all. There is no “default” position.

Familiarity sometimes makes these “differentiation” adjectives go away. When women were new to firefighting, “a female firefighter”—or worse, a “female fireman”—was used in most references, even if it was obvious, from her name or the personal pronouns used, that she was female and there was no relevance to mentioning her sex. The men were just plain “firefighters.” Fortunately, that modifier has mostly disappeared, as the idea of a woman fighting fires has become more familiar and thus needs no differentiation from the “other” kind of firefighter. The same goes for police officers and, for the most part, members of the military.

Just remember that your audience may have a different idea about what is “unusual” than you do. When it comes to modifiers, watch your step. When in doubt, don’t use them at all. Let the nouns be nouns.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.