Politically-correct English

Languages never stay still. In one key dialect of modern English, meaning can be conveyed by the absence of adjectives. It happens with the nouns “man” and “men”, though you’ll also see it with nouns like “youth/s”, “teen/s”, and so on. Mentions of “men” are often men-shuns, because the media avoid describing the “men” any further. But that very absence of description conveys a clear meaning. I can remember seeing a good example of this semantic rule – meaning-by-adjectival-absence – in 2005, when a policewoman was shot dead by criminals in the vibrant multicultural city of Bradford, in northern England. It was a highly unusual crime by English standards and the police, as you would expect, quickly issued a description of the suspects. They were on the look-out, news broadcasts informed the nation, for “up to three men”.

So the shocked citizens of Bradford knew that the suspects were “men” and that there were possibly three of them. Beside that, they knew nothing. The police did not think it would be “helpful” to add further adjectives to the generic noun “men”.


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