Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.


This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

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