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Female. It’s a word that can be both a noun and an adjective. But unless you’re referring to farm animals or giving a lecture on the diversity of nature, someone is sure to be offended if you refer to a woman as a female—as in Carole is a female who knows what she wants. While it’s true that, historically, many renowned authors have used female as a noun, it’s also true that the practice is less accepted in modern usage.
George and Scott met some good-looking females at the nightclub on Saturday.
In this context, female smacks of depersonalization and disrespect. Most women will agree that being referred to as a female is somehow offensive, even if they’re not exactly sure why. More and more we find that female and male are used to imply inferiority, whether in noun or adjective form, as in That’s just the female side talking, or Typical of a female. Note that the same objections can be raised when referring to men, as in If it weren’t for the male mentality, we wouldn’t have any wars, or I am determined to get to know that male.
When used in this context, male seems more mammal than human, and the man in question has been effectively depersonalized. But as an adjective, male is appropriate:
The choir is composed of young male voices.
In the following sentence, female and male are acceptable as nouns:
The females lay their eggs in spring, while the males provide constant watch over the nest.
As adjectives, male and female are also perfectly acceptable:
The newcomers were divided into two groups, female recruits to the left, male recruits to the right.
And while we’re on the subject of sensitivity, perhaps a word about girls.
There are four girls and three men working at the office.
The (hopefully) unintentional result of this sentence is the trivialization of the contributions of the girls in the office, some of whom have probably not been called a girl for years. The sentence would be less insulting to women—or at least equally insulting to both sexes—if it read There are four girls and three boys working at the office, but this conjures up an image of seven kids running around the office—safer to change girls to women.
Technically, this whole female vs woman issue is up for discussion. Dictionary definitions of female and male categorize the words as both noun and adjective, with female (n) = woman or girl and male (n) = man or boy. It’s more an issue of context and the importance of word choice when making an impression on the reader, whether intentional or not. For more on gender and prose, read Using Sensitive Language.
If you want to avoid alienating your readers, opt for writing with sensitivity and avoid using biased language. Use female and woman the proper way. What may be mere words to one reader may be construed as patronizing or insensitive to another, which may leave him or her less receptive to the content of your writing overall. And doesn’t that defeat the whole point of writing?