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Photo of dictionary definition for "dyslexia" to illustrate the "Is it a noun or an adjective?" by Edwin Battistella on the OUP blog

Is it a noun or an adjective?

The distinction between nouns and adjectives seems like it should be straightforward, but it’s not. Grammar is not as simple as your grade-school teacher presented it.

You may have learned about nouns with the description that nouns name a person, place, or thing. That’s a good enough place to start with young kids, but pretty soon someone will realize that “things” is pretty broad. Adjectives are tricky too: they are not just words that describe what nouns stand for; often adjectives clarify nouns by saying how much (several, twenty, most) or they may propose a comparison (more, better, faster).  

A better approach to thinking about adjectives and nouns is to put semantic definitions aside and identify nouns and adjectives by their shapes—what sorts of endings they take. And they can be identified also by their syntactic behavior, that is by what other words they occur with or they can be substituted for. 

Thinking about nouns and adjectives in this way allows us to work through some puzzles about what is a noun and what is an adjective. Consider a phrase like a stone wall or a steel cabinet.  We know that wall and cabinet are nouns, but what about stone and steel? Are they adjectives or nouns?

Actually, they are nouns that modify other nouns. We can be confident of this for several reasons. First, we can’t modify stone or steel with adverbs like very or completely. Second, the most likely paraphrases are ones like “a wall made of stone” or “a cabinet made of steel.” And finally, there are contrasting expressions with actual adjectives, like stony and steely: “a stony demeanor” and “a steely glance.” A silk scarf is made of silk, while a silky scarf has the qualities of silkiness. Comparing stone and steel and silk with stony, steely, and silky helps to decide the issue.

Another noun-or-adjective puzzle involves expressions like the rich or the poor (and also the lucky, the good, the bad, the ugly, the lazy, the industrious, the strong, the weak, the meek, the humble, the mighty, and more). Are these nouns or adjectives? The presence of the would seem to suggest nouns. But that would entail many pairs of homophones, such as rich the noun and rich the adjective, and so on. A bigger problem is that words like rich and poor can occur with a preceding adverb (as in “The very rich”). And we can even make superlative forms (like “The best and the brightest” or “The happiest”). The evidence points to adjective here and so the best way to think about such phrases is as having an omitted noun, something like “The rich (people)” or “The poor (people).” 

Finally, there are possessives. Some grammars, like Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, treat possessives as adjectives. Most modern grammars, however, see possessives as nouns or noun phrases. How can we be confident of this? Consider a phrase like “Truman’s temperament.” The word Truman’s modifies the noun temperament, so it has that feature of an adjective. But if we treat it that way, we open the door to a whole host of compound adjectives exactly like nouns: Harry Truman’s, The 33rd president’s, Give-Em-Hell-Harry’s, and so on. What’s more, possessives can be replaced by pronouns (his temperament), which is a feature of nouns, not adjectives. And perhaps most important is the contrast between true adjectives and possessives: compare the two sentences “Lincoln’s descendants resemble him,” where the pronoun easily refers back to Lincoln and “Lincolnesque people resemble him.” The latter sounds odd, because there is no noun for him to refer back to. But the first sentence is fine because Lincoln’s is a noun.

Grammar is less arbitrary than you might think.

Featured image by Rob Hobson via Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Faedra Weiss

    The French grammatical term for such constructions as “steel cabinet” is “deux substantifs accollés”–“two attached nouns”.

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