How many times while browsing social media have you come across the term “female” to refer to a person? “These females are wild,” some commenter would say.
But the usage of the word “female” in such a way should truly be discouraged. While it is grammatically correct in some contexts, it does not lend to clear communication and its usage can often be seen as a faux pas.
While the word “female” can refer to a type of human, it is not unique to homo sapiens. In fact, we have words that mean “a female human/person” such as “woman”, “girl”, and “lady”. These words leave no room for ambiguity or confusion.
Take this example: “I thought I was alone in the park but when I looked up I saw a female.” But a female what? It isn’t entirely clear, right?
It must be noted that adding some context could reduce ambiguity.
For example, to say, “I saw a female enter the shop,” to answer the question, “What kind of person entered the shop?”, can be deemed acceptable because the context was provided. In essence, your response to the question would be, “I saw a female person enter the shop.” Nonetheless, the sentence still sounds clunky and awkward, doesn’t it? Responding, “I saw a woman/girl enter the shop” is much more natural. Furthermore, given that “woman” and “girl” instantaneously convey that the organism is question is of the human race it is advisable to avoid the trap of basically saying “a female human” or “a female person”.
Furthermore, the word “female” should be treated more as an adjectival element because it describes what type of organism is being referenced.
The prescriptive rules of English grammar stipulate that every sentence must have a noun, or what linguists refer to as a “noun phrase”. The noun within the noun phrase can be modified by – but not limited to – adjectives. In the sentence “I saw a female enter the shop” there is no noun being modified.
So, hopefully, you now get the point.
There are, however, some shortcuts available, and that’s the great thing about English. It is flexible since there are usually more than one meaning attached to a single word. While referring to a woman or a girl as “female” (or a group of women/girls as “females”) leaves room for error, as more and more people begin to use a specific word in a certain way, the more acceptable it becomes.