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