Woman Versus Female

Which is the proper adjective?

Mignon Fogarty,
September 23, 2008
Episode #137

Page 2 of 2

“Female” as a Noun

Now on the flip side, Liz from Austin, Texas, called in to say her pet peeve is when people refer to women as females, for example, when someone says, “I was chatting to some females.” To her, that sounds very scientific and awkward.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that esteemed authors in the 1800s used female in this way. And these authors were women.

Jane Austen used the phrase "the females of the family" in Pride and Prejudice, for example, and Emily Brontë wrote "It opened into the house, where the females were already astir" in Wuthering Heights.

Yet even back in those times other people complained that using female in this way was demeaning (5), and I agree with Liz that it doesn't sound right today. Merriam-Webster's goes on to say that the neutral use of Austen and Brontë has faded away and the most common use of the word female now as a noun is to refer to lower animals. For example, if you were studying apes, you could say something like, “The females formed a small group to defend against the attackers,” (6).

It's my recommendation that you use female as a noun only when you are speaking about animals or writing scientifically. When you are talking about female humans, the favored nouns are woman and women. Likewise, when you're talking about male humans, the favored nouns are man and men.

“Girl” Versus “Woman”

Finally, over the last couple of years I've taken some flak for calling myself Grammar Girl instead of Grammar Woman. People have complained that Grammar Girl sounds like it is belittling me or that I'm too old to be considered a girl. What I have to say to those people is that I like the alliteration of Grammar Girl, and a true feminist would let me call myself anything I want. My mother raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be Grammar Girl.


1. woman. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/woman (accessed September 22, 2008)

2. woman. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/woman (accessed: September 22, 2008).

3. woman. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/woman (accessed: September 22, 2008).

4. woman. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Oxford University Press, http://tinyurl.com/4xu645 (accessed September 22, 2008).

5. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, pp. 440-41.

6. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 180-81.

Cite This Article

APA Style

Fogarty, M. (2008, September 22) Women Rule. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Retrieved [today's dat, from http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/woman-versus-female.aspx

Chicago Style

Mignon Fogarty, “Women Rule,” Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, September 22, 2008, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/woman-versus-female.aspx (accessed [today's dat).

MLA Style

Fogarty, Mignon. “Women Rule.” Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing 22 Sept. 2008 [today's dat < http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/woman-versus-female.aspx>.



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