Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Plural Marriage: Bite 3

Plural Marriage: Bite 3

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 11, 2012

Today’s bite is such a measly nibble that you’ll feel cheated for clicking on the link, but indulge me in a pet peeve here …

Sometime back about the seventh grade, you were probably introduced to the parts of speech:

A noun names a person, place, or thing, usually something tangible (horse, tree, whooping cough), but sometimes an intangible idea (honesty, loyalty, fear).

An adjective describes/modifies a noun (a red dress, an idiosyncratic editor, a self-aggrandizing politician).

And the polygamy tie-in?

Polygamist is a noun. “Brigham Young was a polygamist.”

Polygamous is an adjective. “Brigham Young headed a polygamous family.”

Polygamist and polygamous get mixed up all the time:

  • A national blog recently made the statement that an “author wants Romney to repay polygamist great-granddad’s 130-year-old debt.” The word the writer wanted is “polygamous” – great-granddad is a noun, which should be modified by an adjective.
  • A journalist recently wrote, “Barack Obama’s grandfather grew up in a polygamist culture in Kenya and Mitt Romney’s grandfather lived on a polygamist Mormon commune.” The word the writer wanted in both cases is “polygamous” – he wants an adjective, not another noun, to modify culture and commune, which are both nouns.
  • A Salt Lake paper reports on “a former Lehi polygamist family’s challenge of” Utah law. Family = noun, calling for the adjective polygamous.
  • A Texas newspaper reports, “The hulking construction machines that have been so plentiful on sites sacred to the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have receded.” Again, the word wanted is the adjective “polygamous,” which describes the FLDS church.
  • Again in Texas, “For years, faithful members of Warren Jeffs’ polygamist church have toiled to build Zion in the middle of nowhere.” And again, since it’s an adjective describing a noun, the reporter should have used polygamous to modify church.
  • And a headline in a business magazine reads, “Polygamous Marriage Prompts Outrage in Brazil.” Oh, hey, they got one right! The adjective “polygamous” modifies the noun “marriage.”

There is a grammatical construction called a noun adjunct, where nouns do function as adjectives (chicken soup: “chicken” is a noun, but it modifies the noun “soup”; warrior ancestors: “warrior” is a noun but acts like an adjective in describing “ancestors”). Noun adjuncts are a kind of shorthand for a longer phrase: “chicken soup” is “soup made with chicken” and “warrior ancestors” are “ancestors who were warriors.” All of the incorrect examples above could be twisted into noun adjuncts: “Warren Jeffs’ polygamist church” could be warped into “Warren Jeffs’ church of men who are polygamists”; “polygamist culture in Kenya” could be twisted to, what? “a culture in Kenya permitting polygamy”? but it takes some juggling to make that work in most cases. True noun adjuncts are more direct, more like compound nouns: raisin bread, rose bush, one-bedroom apartment.

Big deal, right? It seems to me, though, that people can’t really understand what they’re talking about if they aren’t even listening to the words they use.

Polygamist = Noun
Polygamous = Adjective



  1. You’re right. Now I’ll never make that mistake again. (I enjoy being a grammar police. Thanks for this.)

    Comment by Carol — September 11, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  2. “a . . . police”?? : ) Policewoman, arrest thyself!

    I’m busy writing a history of non-polygamous polygamists. As soon as I finish, I’ll come back and read this post.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 11, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  3. I agree in some cases (the grandfathers), but not others (cultures, communes, churches and families). Cultures, communes and such cannot be polygamous because they do not get married. I think “polygamist” is the better modifier. Consider “communist.” Marx, Lenin and Mao were [noun] communists. But it is not a stretch to call a country that is run on principles of communism a “communist country.” Similarly, I think it is proper to refer to a culture that promotes polygamy to be referred to as “polygamist.” You might protest that because we do not call the promotion of polygamy “polygamism,” the analogy doesn’t work. So maybe we should call it polygamism, as in the linked example

    Also, for the record, the three-way in Brazil was not a marriage, despite all the headlines. It was a “stable union,” which, in Brazil, is different from marriage. And it is probably not even a valid stable union.

    Comment by Last Lemming — September 11, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  4. Bah! I was all ready to bring up noun adjuncts while I was reading your post only to arrive at the end and you had already gotten there. *sigh*

    Anyway, this reminds me of our family’s favorite quote from the movie “Up!” by the Alpha dog – “Do you understand the words that I am saying to you at this time?”

    Comment by iguacufalls — September 11, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  5. You’re describing noun adjuncts, Last Lemming. I don’t object. I do reserve the right to consider you a linguistic barbarian, but you’re probably okay with that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  6. I’ve heard of them stable unions. Last one I heard about produced a foal.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 11, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  7. Botherations. Why doesn’t WordPress have a “like” button? I’d have used it liberally here — a rant about the intersection of polygamy and grammar, a quote from “Up,” a joke about a foal, etc., etc. : )

    Comment by Amy T — September 11, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  8. i wuz robd

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 11, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  9. Yikes! I’ve probably been using the wrong words all this time. Oh well, now I know.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — September 11, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

  10. I think I’m okay with “polygamist Brigham Young.” The noun adjunct describes the noun. But I agree a church can’t be a polygamist, so it should be “polygamous FLDS church.” My brief and infallible research on seems to support this.

    And according to Merriam-Webster, “communist” is both the noun and adjective form.

    Comment by Lonn L — September 11, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

  11. “I was the type who looked at discussions of What Is Truth only with a view toward correcting the manuscript. If you were to quote “I am that I am,” for example, I thought that the fundamental problem was where to put the comma, inside the quotation marks or outside.”
    ― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

    Comment by Lonn L — September 11, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  12. Don’t worry Sister Parshall — I never regret clicking on your posts. Your point is well taken. It is interesting to note that in most the old talks, the brethern used the phrase “plural marriage” as opposed to “polygamous marriage.”

    Comment by IDIAT — September 12, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  13. I hate to say it Ardis, but according to the OED, “Polygamist” has been used as an adjective since 1855.

    Their references include the following:

    1886 Pall Mall Gaz. 5 Oct. 3/2 It was a greater evil to dissolve bonâ fide marriages..than to refuse baptism to polygamist husbands and their wives.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 18, 2012 @ 12:05 am

  14. I hate to read that, Kent. Bad grammar always stings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 18, 2012 @ 5:23 am

  15. Well, if it is any consolation, the OED is descriptive — recording how people DO use the language — and not prescriptiive — i.e., not telling us how the language SHOULD be used.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 18, 2012 @ 5:58 am

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