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A couple of weeks ago, the New York TimesAfter Deadline” blog took on an issue close to my heart—the use of descriptive adjectives as nouns to refer to a group of people that share a particular characteristic. I’ve discussed my reservations about that usage briefly here before, but I thought it merited another mention. The “After Deadline” post specifically addresses use of the term “disabled” as a noun, arguing that “the difference between ‘the disabled’ and ‘disabled people’ (or ‘people with disabilities’) is subtle but significant. …it’s better to refer to people who, among other characteristics, have some disability, rather than to use the disability as the sole label.”

I couldn’t agree more, but wish that Times Deputy News Editor Philip B. Corbett, who maintains the blog and the Times stylebook, had gone on to generalize his conclusion to other nouns and other groups of people. According to the stylebook as cited by Corbett, “the disabled” should be avoided as a noun because “it may seem to equate widely diverse people and undervalue the productive parts of their lives.” I understand that the second listed reason for avoiding the term—undervaluing productive parts of peoples’ lives—applies specifically to “disabled,” which some might perceive as emphasizing a negative characteristic. But the first reason—the desire to avoid equating widely diverse people—applies equally to nouns like “blacks” and “homosexuals” (which are both used relatively often in the Times, as here and here).

I do think that there’s an extra element of “othering” in the fact that the adjective-noun “disabled” is always preceded by the article “the.” The only other adjective-nouns I can think of that are used that way are nationality nouns like “the Chinese” or “the French.” And the fact that it would sound absurd to discuss “the Americans” in a newspaper story suggests that that construction only works with groups that are unfamiliar or “other” enough to the audience that they can be comfortably grouped into a monolith. But why not avoid the problem altogether by using “disabled people,” “white people,” and “Senegalese people”? Adjectives are the right parts of speech for that kind of information because their function is to describe things, where the function of nouns is to define things.

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