@Deborah Cameron points out, the sentence “The man went berserk and killed his neighbor’s wife” is unobjectionable on its surface. But stop to think: why “his neighbor’s wife”
instead of “one of his neighbors”?
~~Can you come up with a different way to express an age range, a gender, proximity to the man’s house, and a wee’ bit of inference in three other words or less?
Writing “Dear Sir /Madam” or such drives me nuts too.
But, Dear Debbie, that was a stupid comment.
I would read such a sentence to imply that the killer knew the man, but (for some reason) was not so familiar with the woman.
That’s probably normal - friendships outside of a marriage tend to be same-sex, and therefore if a person goes berserk and kills the spouse of a friend, that spouse is likely to be the opposite sex to the killer (so it could just as easily be “woman goes berserk and kills neighbour’s husband”.
His neighbor and his neighbor’s wife did not live together? Maybe they were going through a rough patch in their marriage?
Maybe his neighbor moved for a new job and left his family behind in their old house until the end of the school year? It happens.
“his neighbor lady”, or if you prefer a little more formal, “his female neighbor”.
You’re proposing specific examples of why that description might be valid, but failing to justify why it should be the preferred generic description for the event.
“Guy just went crazy and killed the lady next door” reads different than “Guy just went crazy and killed his neighbor’s wife”. Which is more appopriate to the individual circumstances varies, but one refers to the males on equal footing and puts the female at more distant status. The other puts the victim on equal status with the accused assailant.
And I’m sure someone is going to argue that the victim should be put on a higher status than the accused killer. Note that neither version does that.
I think it’s this. Using “neighbor’s wife” brings to mind all sorts of possibilities of sordid goings-on and sinning; even if the “sinning” is not part of the story it sells newspapers. It also brings greater tragedy into the story (“the dead woman had a husband who’s grieving”).
If I wanted to specify gender more neutrally and leave out the emotion, I’d go with “murdered his neighbor, Mrs. [or Ms.] Jones”.
It would also depend on context. Maybe he’s friends with one member of the couple specifically, or one of them lived there first and the other moved in when they got married, or the like. In that case, it might be perfectly natural to refer to them as “the neighbor” and “the neighbor’s spouse”.
For a non-gender-related comparison, at my high school, one of the math teachers and one of the bus drivers were brothers. We students referred to them as “Mr. D_____” and “Mr. D_____'s brother”, even though either of them were equally entitled to either of those. It was just a matter of which one we had the closer contact with.
To me, “killed his neighbor’s [son | wife | husband | daughter | whatever ]” seems more natural. It conveys more information (as Wheelz mentioned), but it also places focus on the living person, which seems correct to me.
I’d personally go with something more along the lines of “The man went berserk and killed his neighbor, Ilene Dover.” And if you wanted the age in there, The man went berserk and killed his neighbor, Ilene Dover, 47."
Saying the victim was someone’s wife…it’s not exactly demeaning, but it seems very old-fashioned and oddly focused on the husband, like how one might have spoken about a woman before we got the right to vote.
Um, I don’t know about the entire “neighbor’s wife” conundrum… but my transgendered sibling really, really doesn’t like the terms “zhe” and “zher”. So TG folks-- who have more authority than anybody else to comment on this issue, IMHO-- tend to really prefer the pronoun referring to the gender that they feel they should have been born to.
I have currently decided on “sibling” whenever possible. Said sibling actually is thinking about genderqueer identity, so there you go. Although I don’t think that everyone in line at Starbuck’s PARTICULARLY needed to know.