Usage and Grammar

Q. I have been using the title “professor emerita” with the names of retired female professors. Now one of those professors insists that I have confused sex with grammatical gender. She writes, “The phrase is Latin; the noun ‘professor’ is masculine and should be modified by the masculine form of the adjective—‘emeritus’—regardless of the professor’s gender.” Since the sixteenth edition of CMOS has used “professor emerita” as part of an example at paragraph 8.27, I’m assuming that this usage is correct. Can you weigh in on this?

A. The professor has a point. But one of the nice things about the Latin word professor is that it has survived absolutely unchanged into contemporary English. And most people intend the English word professor in the phrase “professor emerita.” In that case, though professor is invariable and therefore neutral for gender (but not for number), it is perfectly acceptable to adjust emeritus to suit the gender (and number) of the professor(s): emeritus, emerita, emeriti, emeritae. But in this case of grammatical correctness coming up against political correctness, there is no clear winner. If you need to cite another authority, the latest editions of both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and American Heritage (4th ed.) include examples with emerita—without any warnings about usage problems.