Word choice: adopted and adoptive

A colleague in another department pointed out this word choice to Ted Vaden, the public editor. Under the Dome [print version] referred to Jane Wyman as Michael Reagan’s “adopted mother.” The word mostly commonly used is “adoptive.”

To paraphrase the usage experts, adoptive parents adopt adopted children. The modifier “adoptive” applies to the person who is taking the action, and the modifier “adopted” applies to the person being acted upon.


Right after the public editor’s internal note about readers’ questions appeared in our e-mail in-boxes and pointed out the “adopted” usage, a writer reminded me that he had used “adopted mother” in a piece that he had written and I had copy-edited. Oy. In the 1996 edition of “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” by R.W. Burchfield, the author notes that usage has eroded on this useful distinction. Indeed.

The larger point, I thought, on the reference in the Dome column was that “adopted” was an unnecessary modifier. The paragraph before that reference noted that Michael Reagan was President Reagan’s “oldest son.” [That should have been older son because Reagan had only two.] There was no reference to adoption in that paragraph, and none was needed. An adopted son or daughter is a son or daughter, no qualifier needed in most cases.

By the way, in the piece that I copy-edited, a synopsis of a new television series titled “Cane,” I think the reference to Rita Moreno’s character as the adoptive mother of Jimmy Smits’ character was germane. It appears to be a plot point in the series.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.