Misplaced Adjectives and Nouns: Grammar Does Matter

education related concepts

“Mom, how do I make the word ‘humble’ a noun?” “What about ‘splendid’?” My fifth grader had come to me for help on her grammar homework. Humble, humbly, humility… three very similar words with similar meanings but serving very different purposes in a sentence. Humble – an adjective serving to describe a noun… a humble athlete. Humbly – an adverb adding description to a verb or action word. The athlete humbly passed the trophy to his teammates. Humility – a noun. My fifth grader is just learning the differences that a suffix can make on a word. She has yet to realize the significant impact that word placement can have in communicating meaning and value.

My physical therapy students are also studying grammar. From their first semester in their physical therapy, they are revisiting nouns and adjectives and examining how misplacement and misuse of these parts of speech changes meaning significant to the clients with whom they will work. Take the word “paraplegic” for example. Paraplegic is used as a noun AND an adjective. As an adjective, it means “of or related to or afflicted with paraplegia.” As a noun, it means “a person afflicted with paraplegia.” In healthcare circles, it is not unusual to hear, “He is a paraplegic” or for short, “He is a para.” This is an example of poor noun choices. “The paraplegic guy” is an example of a misplaced adjective.    This is also a poor choice. Better choices would be, “the person or patient or businessman or athlete or father or son with paraplegia“.

We call this “people-first” language because in the case of all persons with illnesses, impairments, or disabilities, they are people first. The person is the noun. The person… who they are comes first…not their disability or their impairment or their illness. Even in the award-winning movie Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman did such an excellent job depicting an autistic savant… Did you catch it? Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic savant. Here is a misplaced adjective and the noun doesn’t truly identify the person. How many times do we make reference to the autistic child? This is another example of a misplaced adjective. Placed correctly, she is “a child with autism” or “a daughter with autism” or “a student with autism.” Dustin Hoffman portrayed Charlie Babbitt’s brother, a man who was considered to be a savant with autism.

Old habits and colloquialisms die hard. Our ears hear and our brains retain the commonalities of speech that we encounter every day.  References to “handicap parking spots” seem like they are here to stay. How about “parking for disabled persons”? It is still a misplaced adjective! Better would be “parking for a person with a disability.” Making the grammatical shift is hard; but when we do, the change in the message is powerful and the message is empowering to the person.

My fifth grader doesn’t fully understand it yet, but grammar really does matter.

Anonymous Faculty