Writing-Defogging Blog

Use it as an adjective, not a noun

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

I was shopping downtown the other day when a tattered young woman approached me, a paper cup in her hand, her eyes averted, and asked, “Will you help the homeless?”

I declined. I believe in supporting social service agencies rather than giving away money that might buy drugs or alcohol.

But had the woman said “Will you help me?,” rather asking for money for “the homeless,” I might have considered making an exception to my own rule. I knew that giving her a dollar wasn’t going to help “the homeless” — which is, after all, a frightfully large group of multi-faceted individuals who happen to share the same residential status.

More important, by referring to herself as “the homeless,” rather than “me,” the woman demonstrated an insidious tic of modern English usage: The widespread and unchallenged transformation of adjectives into nouns, and the resulting objectification of people.

“The homeless.” “The handicapped.” “The elderly.” “The needy.” These phrases were formerly adjectives used, without “the,” to describe the word “people.” “Homeless people.” “Handicapped people.” “Elderly people.”

But used as nouns, they become depersonalizing labels, lumping together individuals who contain many more dimensions than the shared label trait.

The phrase “elderly people,” for instance, carries with it the inference that although these folks all share a common age range, each is a complex human being with other concerns and dimensions.

But used as a noun — “the elderly” — the phrase is no longer about “people,” but about a group, a unit — an object. Each individual’s personhood has, literally, been erased. When we hear about “the elderly,” we forget that it’s a collection of diverse individuals, some of whom like onions of their hoagies, some of whom vote in every election, some of whom love to cha-cha.

Granted, phrases like “the poor” and “the blind” are used as social-service shorthand, a method of generalizing about common needs and issues of each group, making them easily accessible to the public. But they still group people together as thoughtlessly as Ross Perot’s use of “you people” at an NAACP gathering several years back.

In addition to the social-service agencies who serve these particular populations, the other great abusers of this adjective-noun balancing act are various media outlets. The best newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations — even those that sympathetically cover special-interest groups, and act fairly and responsibly in their own hiring policies — do it, often creating and new twists on this tic of diction.

Unfortunately, many people learn new idioms from media sources, assume the appropriateness of the idioms because they’ve appeared in a media outlet, and then incorporate them into their own vocabularies — and so it becomes more and more difficult for us to hear how these phrases are fundamentally wrong, and how they slowly chip away at our sensitivity to others’ plights.

Not all the “the whatever-group” phrases refer to groups of people who have physicial traits different from the norm, or to groups of people who have needs not being adequately addressed by society. We talk about “the rich,” for instance, and “the young,” neither label carrying with it a necessarily negative connotation. Still, when we group together inviduals under either label, we do a disservice to the unique traits that make each rich person different from another, and to each young person who has his or her own experience of growing up.

Other groups are labeled without a “the” — “gays” and “singles,” for instance — but without the “person,” the impact is the same: Generalities and depersonalization. Reinstituting “people” after the adjectives “gay” or “single” acknowledges individuality while balancing it with a common concern.

Usually, the point of referring to different groups of people is to create compassion which, hopefully, will translate into action that will ease or improve their situations. But it’s easier to imagine other people’s circumstances and respond in a meaningful way when the word we all have in common – “people” — is used.

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