Usage and Grammar

Q. Is it improper to say in a title, “Women Police: Portraits of Success”? My publisher says that it’s grammatically incorrect and that it should read “Female Police Officers: Portraits of Success” instead. I see “women police” in print everywhere, and there’s even a journal titled “Women Police.” I thought usage dictated rules of grammar, not the other way around. Your help, please.

A. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that usage automatically dictates the rules of grammar (since that would mean I’d have to let my kids get away with “Me and Chris need food, Mom”), it’s true that over time grammar does evolve as a result of persistent usage. The word “female” carries some dismissive, derogatory connotations (perhaps because it’s a biological term used for animals as well as humans; perhaps because of its pervasive use in crime reports), and in the last decade or so “woman” as an adjective has come to connote a more respectful attitude, replacing “lady,” a respectable but somewhat prissy and dated term. Merriam-Webster lists “woman” as an adjective, so I wouldn’t say it’s ungrammatical, although many editors do not accept the word as other than a noun. And of course nouns may be used attributively as modifiers: teacher training, student fares, carpenters union. In fact, for over a hundred years now, the phrase “woman suffrage” has been the standard way to describe the campaign to give women the vote. “Female Police Officers” may be technically correct, but I would vote for “Women.”