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?Email this Post