Are adjectives the new nouns?

Posted by on February 11, 2013

I’d like first to draw together some threads from recent and not-so-recent posts on the flexibility of word class in English – i.e on verbing, nouning, and the general tendency of words to hop from one word class to another.

I wrote about nouning in November, and last month Stan Carey focused on the bad reputation that nominalisation has acquired through overuse. For anyone who is hazy about these terms, nouning is just a simple type of nominalisation. When a verb is ‘nouned’, its base form is re-launched as a noun and behaves like any noun – it usually has an article, as in have a think, and perhaps other modifiers: a big ask; the north-south divide, a special invite. This is from Saturday’s Guardian Weekend letters page:

That Blind Date was the biggest total fail so far.

The related term verbing has also featured prominently on this blog, for example here, here, and here. Verbing can be seen as the mirror image of nouning, whereby the base form of a noun is recycled as a verb, with a verb’s behaviour: Text me later, I’ll friend him on Facebook. Like all verbs, these inflect, e.g for past tense: They came, they medalled, they podiumed.

The nouning of verbs and the verbing of nouns (often called ‘conversion’, a dull, unmemorable term) are not the only ways of extending class membership. Back in 2009 Michael Rundell focused on nouns like rubbish and genius which have become adjectives, or adjective-like: a rubbish haircut; such a genius idea. Logically, this process should be called ‘adjectiving’, but I won’t even go there.

Let’s turn now to adjectives themselves, and their ability to behave like nouns. We are already familiar with their ‘plural’ use after the to refer to groups of people like the unemployed, the homeless, and the lonely, though it is of course impolite, even offensive, to lump disadvantaged people together like this (see the note at disabled in the Macmillan Dictionary). I often wonder which groups this caveat excludes: the wealthy, the privileged, the politically correct?

We recognise, too, the noun-like uses of adjectives like the absurd and the unthinkable, as we travel the well-trodden road from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But have all these adjectives become nouns here, or are they just adjectives being used as nouns? Dictionaries disagree on this point, reflecting the fact that word-class membership is a human construct rather than an intrinsic property of words.

And can adjectives follow a preposition like beyond without a change of class? Prepositions are typically followed by nouns: beyond doubt, beyond our control, and of course Beyond the Fringe. But there are also examples like this:

Your search for a place beyond ordinary is over. (cruise-line advert)
That goes beyond interesting into terrifying.
Climbing at this altitude is beyond difficult. Each step is torture…

Then there is the ‘snowclone’ or meme, ‘X is the new Y’, which began life in 1980s’ fashion journalism with declarations like Grey is the new black, and then progressed to embrace a rainbow of colours with extended meanings. Here green policies are equated with patriotism:

Green, ladies and gentlemen, is the new red, white and blue.

Again nouns are the norm on both sides of the equation: divorce is the new marriage; trillion is the new billion; texting is the new lipstick-on-the-collar (a complex sliver of meaning, this).

But the frame also seems to attract a range of noun-like adjectives:

This season’s head-turning fashion trend: long is the new short.
Eating weird is the new normal.
Good Enough Is the New Perfect (book title)

The same question arises: are all these transplanted adjectives just adjectives behaving oddly, playing at being nouns? Or are they on the way to true noun-hood? The difference is a crucial one for dictionary-makers wielding a limited number of grammatical labels, but most people don’t trouble themselves with the unanswerable.

And finally there is the slogan Creating Amazing, a car advert in which the adjective amazing is also behaving strangely like a noun, here a condensed grammatical object. You can be or feel or look amazing. But can you create amazing?

Comments (23)
  • ‘Funny’ is another adjective that is beginning to be used as a noun without a preceding ‘the’. On a recent edition of Desert Island Discs, I heard Kirsty Young introduce her guest Dawn French by saying ‘If you like funny, then you like her.’

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 12th February, 2013
  • What’s clear from Gill’s post, my one on adverbs (and Jonathan Marks’ comment on that) is that traditional word class (part-of-speech) categories are much less stable than we think. They have their uses, for sure, but it’s best to think of them in terms of Prototype Theory: there are plenty of strong (prototypical) members of each category (‘walk’ is a nice ‘doing word’; ‘house’ is a prototypical noun; and ‘slowly’ a classic adverb), but there are also many ‘outliers‘ or weak members of the category. A favourite of mine is ‘think’ as a noun: traditional dictionaries define this as: ‘an act of thinking’ . It looks like a noun, but in practice it only ever appears in phrases like ‘I’ll have a think about that’. Not very helpful!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 12th February, 2013
  • Thanks for that one Elizabeth – it’s in a category with ‘creating amazing’, in that it’s a grammatical object. As you and I discussed recently in relation to the adjectives after ‘beyond’, this may be a mention rather than a use of ‘funny’, although we only have the surface language to go on and we can’t suggest motives, or try to see what is ‘meant’ beyond what is ‘said’. Or it means ‘things that are funny’, but again, that is reading between the lines, or invoking a kind of ellipsis. So it’s just an adjective behaving badly, and may be ‘becoming’ a noun in this sort of clause, though what it means to ‘become’ a noun seems increasingly myterious to me.

    Posted by Gill on 12th February, 2013
  • Michael: I agree that prototype theory is useful, but it’s limited – language description is a special case because there are as many ‘outliers’ as there are central and typical members of a class – adverbs being the most scrappy class of all, full of disparate, unrelated groups, a rag-tag collection of the misfits rejected by the major classes. And people disagree about what is a determiner, or a quantifier – so even some quite important classes are fuzzy. But lexicographers still have to assign grammar labels from our hopelessly inadequate, Latin-based number of classes – so few, and so disagreed upon.

    Different dictionaries have different policies about class-hopping too. Cobuild went along the route of saying ‘If it acts like a noun, then it is a noun’: thus ‘the homeless’ is labelled N-PLURAL in Cobuild but remains an adjective in this context in the Macmillan Dictionary. Much easier. I guess that as dictionaries go forward, there will be less and less grammatical information as writers coin new uses and like to say ‘a fail’ rather than ‘a failure’, just for fun. You are right that classes are less stable, so the best thing to do may be to back off from tying them down.

    (About ‘have a think’ – it seems that when a verb is nouned etc, the result is always – maybe temporarily – phraseologically restricted, as if to mark its uncertainty as a class member. Plurals for example don’t occur at first – you don’t harbour thinks like you harbour thoughts, yet. And ‘the undead’ is restricted to ‘the’ – we don’t get ‘an undead’, though who knows, maybe tomorrow.)

    Posted by Gill on 12th February, 2013
  • Another kind of nouning is when adjectives become perfectly normal countable nouns referring to objects – you can buy a mobile (phone), an automatic (car or gun), or a portable (television).

    Thinking about the noun ‘think’, its use isn’t quite as restricted as Michael says. Obviously it’s usually ‘have a think’ but things like ‘after a bit of a think’, ‘…sat down for a good long think’, and ‘a good place for a cup of tea and a think’ (all from the ukWaC corpus) sound fine to me.

    Going back to ‘funny’, BBC3 has the slogan ‘Feed my funny’ for its comedy, which is a pretty weird phrase.

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 13th February, 2013
  • In the Guardian’s minute-by-minute (MBM) report on a football match last night, Barney Ronay wrote:

    “Matt Dony has a funny: ‘Wanyama is a real bull of a player. For Celtic to get a result, he’s going to have to gore Vidal. Sorry. I’ll go and think about what I’ve done.’ ”

    I’m not sure if he just forgot to key something like “comment” or “joke” after the word funny, or if he’s deliberately using “funny” as a fully-fledged countable noun.

    Posted by Stephen on 13th February, 2013
  • Remember that sad ‘Impossible is Nothing’ guy?

    Posted by Peter on 13th February, 2013
  • When you regard them as some concrete entities, they make sense. Then I can easily create amazing.

    Posted by Mohsen A. J. on 17th February, 2013
  • With reference to Stephen’s comment on “a funny”, this has been used with the sense of a joke for a long time (the SOED dates it back to the mid nineteenth century). And the funnies are comic strips in newspapers.

    I think that ellipsis is significant in some of these instances of “adjective as noun”: expressions such as “doing the necessary” and “stating the obvious” are very well-established and date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively according to the SOED.

    Countability is another interesting area: one can state the obvious, but not an obvious or the obviouses, whereas one can make/tell/have a funny.

    On the other hand, some “adjectives as noun” seem less comfortable with the definite article: “Tell her the funny that you told me yesterday” is just about plausible, but “The think that she had was not very productive” sounds very strained to me.

    Posted by John Potts on 22nd February, 2013
  • Michael says that “categories are much less stable than we think.” Certainly, words shift category from time to time, but what we have here is simply the result of confused grammatical analysis.

    This post and many of the other recent ones about the so-called parts of speech are missing a level of analysis, that of function. This post confuses the category of noun with the function of SUBJECT or with the function of COMPLEMENT of a preposition. The reasoning seems to be that all nouns can be subjects and many subjects are nouns, therefor all subjects are nouns. This is equivalent to saying that all dogs can be pets, and many pets are dogs, therefore all pets are dogs, obviously nonsense.

    In fact, the function of subject can be filled by a variety of constituents. Noun phrases are one, but to-infinitives will also work (e.g., [to be happy] is good), as well as content clauses (e.g., [that he is happy] is good). And in certain cases, we can even have PPs ([after five] is good) or AdjPs as subjects ([happy] is good). That doesn’t make these constituents nouns, and it only appears to do so when we fail to maintain a distinction between categories and functions.

    Similarly, prepositions take a variety of complements. The most common is an OBJECT consisting of an NP, but its extremely common for prepositions to take PP complements (out [from [behind the book]]), and from time to time they take AjdP complements.

    Now, if words like ‘happy’ start to be modified by AjdPs and allow determiner phrases (*the personal happy is good), if they begin to reject modification by AdvPs, or if they take on plural forms (*two happies), then they have become nouns. But there’s no evidence for that here.

    Posted by Brett Reynolds on 22nd February, 2013
  • Brett: Thank you for this. As you are aware, you have raised the most fundamental of all questions regarding word-class and behaviour, and one that is never far from my mind. Understanding the functions of language should be at the basis of all linguistic enquiry – I started out as a systemic functional grammarian because it was Halliday who first grabbed my interest in grammar before I even met John Sinclair and the corpus. Yesterday I happened to leave a comment on Stan Carey’s blog, responding in broad simple terms to Geoffrey Pullum’s views on prepositions (because Stan had referred to Geoffrey’s post among others). I guess that you are ‘coming from the same place’ as they say, and that this needs a serious reply. I have a post coming up on Monday and will try to answer you then; otherwise it will be in two weeks’ time. Thanks for raising the topic: I knew that eventually someone would question my assumptions (and those of learner’s dictionaries, incidentally)!

    Posted by Gill on 22nd February, 2013
  • I think we’re all agreeing that words belonging to one word class can come to belong to another word class – it’s just a question of what criteria to use when judging if, say, an adjective has become a noun, and that’s the issue Gill’s raising. Function and modification are obviously important, especially since the form of an English word often does not clearly show its word class. Obviously, not all subjects are nouns, but if a word is being used as a subject, and subjects are typically nouns, it seems a good idea to think about reasons for saying the word is NOT a noun.

    The interesting thing is that adjectives are being used without ‘the’ as subjects/objects/prepositional objects more often than they used to be, whether we see this as a change in word class or an expansion of the range of possible subjects/objects of verbs or things that can come after a preposition.

    It’s occurred to me that things like ‘the poor’ and ‘the unemployed’ can be modified by adverbs or adjectives eg the very poor, the undeserving poor, so what does that make them??

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 25th February, 2013
  • In response to Elizabeth’s question, In all cases, these could be replaced with Adj + N constructions (viz, the poor people, the unemployed citizens, etc.). So we could consider this to be a case of elision, or of fusion of functions (see the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language p. 415). Either way, it would be a mistake to consider ‘underserving’ to be a modifier of ‘poor’ in these cases any more so than you would in ‘the undeserving poor people’ where both ‘poor’ and ‘undeserving’ are modifying a head noun. This can easily be seen when you compare ‘the undeservingly poor’, where they are poor although they don’t deserve to be with ‘the undeserving poor’ who are both poor and undeserving.

    If you take the view that ‘poor’ has become a noun, then you must take the view that virtually all adjectives are nouns, since almost all of them can appear in this construction. It’s much more parsimonious to simply consider this to be a characteristic of adjectives. This is bolstered by the fact that you cannot modify them with adjectives, as I’ve shown, but you can do so with adverbs. You cannot make them plural, but you can make them comparative or superlative. You can hardly even replace the determiner (function) with a different determinative (category). You can’t say ‘*a poor is receiving less support’ and you can hardly even say ‘?many poor were receiving less support’. In short they have only a very superficial resemblance to nouns, while maintaining all the characteristics of adjectives.

    If, on the other hand, you take the view that ‘poor’ has not become a noun but is merely functioning as a one, then you have confounded category and function.

    I’m also interested to see the data showing that “adjectives are being used without ‘the’ as subjects/objects/prepositional objects more often than they used to be.”

    Posted by Brett Reynolds on 25th February, 2013
  • Brett: If I understood you correctly, you implied in your previous comment that you would regard ‘happy’ as a noun if you could say ‘the personal happy’, so I was just wondering what you thought about ‘the undeserving poor’. And now I know – thanks.

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 25th February, 2013
  • Thanks for this, Brett. You say: “If you take the view that ‘poor’ has become a noun, then you must take the view that virtually all adjectives are nouns, since almost all of them can appear in this construction.”. Must you? What interests lexicographers who start from corpus data is not the possible but the probable: a corpus shows us which adjectives regularly occur in this pattern (poor, rich, sick and so on). So that’s what dictionaries record, because that’s what will be helpful for their users. For the same reasons, we’re uncomfortable with made-up counter-examples, such as ‘the undeservingly poor’. (I just checked a 10-billion word corpus and found not a single example of this, and (for me) that compromises its value as evidence.) There are plenty of cases of the type Elizabeth mentions: not only the undeserving (and deserving) poor, but the worried well, the great unwashed, and so on. For lexicographers, these are recurrent strings whose meanings and usage we need to account for. The theoretical question of whether they are, are or not, ‘a case of elision’ is separate and (I’m sorry to say) secondary.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 25th February, 2013
  • Hi, Michael. There’s clearly great benefit to the string-based approach, and it would certainly argue for the inclusion of examples in entries for words like ‘following’, ‘dead’, ‘elderly’, ‘best’, and ‘homeless’, that exemplify the pattern in question. To mark any of these as a noun, though, in a dictionary would be misleading. It would suggest they possess a variety of other characteristics that they do not.

    And yes, despite the low likelihood of ‘the semiconscious are…’ I do think you would have to call it a noun if you took ‘poor’ to be a noun. Are you going to have a construction like this where you call one word a noun and another an adjective depending on how often they occur? Despite the fact that I can’t find an example of ‘the piddly are…’, if I put that in a novel, you would read it and accept it in a way that you would not ‘the quickly are…’ I bet I could even hook up an EEG and detect a P600 ERP for the second and not the first.

    As for Elizabeth’s example, I was not questioning the ‘the undeserving poor’ example at all. What I was questioning was Elizabeth’s analysis, which assumed that the second adjective was modified by the first. Certainly there are many ‘the’ + Adj + Adj strings, but these are hardly ever examples of the the first adjective modifying the second. My example of ‘the undeservingly poor’ was not put forward as something that someone might say, but simply to provide contrast and help jog our thinking about ‘the undeserving poor’ in the same way that a bad essay can help us understand what a good essay is.

    (By the way, there should be a way to use HTML tags and preview a post before submitting)

    Posted by Brett Reynolds on 25th February, 2013
  • By the way, if ‘the poor’ is a truncated form of ‘the poor people’, it’s a case of ellipsis, not elision.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 26th February, 2013
  • Yes, ellipsis. Thanks!

    Posted by Bret on 26th February, 2013
  • Last night I saw a TV advert for a John Frieda Frizz-Ease hair product with the slogan “Expect perfect.”

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 1st March, 2013
  • The TED 2013 conference web site has:

    TED 2013: The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.

    Posted by John Potts on 1st March, 2013
  • So Gill, is a response still in the works?

    Posted by Brett Reynolds on 20th March, 2013
  • Brett: Yes, I more or less composed a response to you, after talking to my colleagues and thinking about the whole issue further. But we feel that the topic is too complex and technical for this blog, and wouldn’t be of interest to many of our readers. Could you give me your email address? I will write to you privately in a week or so, and if the discussion is useful you could post it on a blog of your choice..

    Posted by Gill on 20th March, 2013
  • Sorry for the long lag. I didn’t know you’d responded. You can send it to brett.reynolds@humber.ca

    Posted by Brett Reynolds on 31st July, 2013
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