Adjectival noun

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This article is about the use of adjectival nouns in English and especially in inflected languages. For use in Japanese grammar, see adjectival noun (Japanese).

An adjectival noun is an adjective that is able to function as a noun; for example the rich and the poor are used to mean people to whom the respective adjectives apply. This is not to be confused with the attributive noun, which is a noun modifying a noun. This article focuses on the nominalization of such adjectival constructs and the cross linguistic variations of their lexical entries and syntactic structures.

Theory development of adjectival nouns for English[edit]

Lexicalist and syntactic theories have different accounts of the function and qualities of adjectival nouns.

Lexicalist theory of adjectival nouns[edit]

The lexicalist approach is a theory proposing that words (complex or compound) are created through the use of lexical rules. This theory is prominently stated beginning in the 1970's by both Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. Chomsky’s contributions explain how some complex words are explained through lexicaltransformations. Halle proposed his idea, of autonomous morphological components, meaning that a native speaker should have corresponding cognitive components that account for the lexical knowledge of a speaker.[1]

The Lexical Theory examines the formation of adjectival nouns with the use of the deep structures of two different sentences. Analyzing the deep structure of a phrase is one way in which linguists can see the underlying semantic meaning of the phrase and also allows linguists to analyze the pragmatics meaning of the phrase. A lexical transformation of an adjective to a noun causes the semantic component of the phrase to become more complicated; there is a change in the lexical roles of certain segments in the phrase. This lexical transformation allows the adjective to take the place of a noun. This occurs as a result of the application of the Projection Principle by Noam Chomsky and is explained by the two points below by John S. Bowers in 1975.[2]

  • The meaning of the lexical items is in a phrase
  • The grammatical relations are contained in the deep structure of the phrase.(Bowers 1975)

The lexical properties of an underlying word can be preserved or changed via the surface structure transformation; underlying words are abstract forms of words that have not been shaped by the grammar of its particular language. The resulting surface structure would be an underlying word which has undergone a transformation to become a finished product. Therefore, according to the Projection Principle, an adjective will take the role of a noun if a noun is absent. To demonstrate, the following adjectival phrase (AP), a phrase with an adjective as its head, “as happy as a dancing child” is syntactically equivalent to the corresponding noun phrase (NP) "the happiness that a dancing child has", a phrase that contains a noun as its head. This property allows the adjective "happy" to take the place of the noun "happiness" if need to be.

The process of Lexical Transformation

This process occur according to the projection rule which states that the Determiner of an AP to an Adjective is related to the Determiner of a NP to a Noun. Thus, the words happy from the AP and happiness of the NP are interchangeable in this context because they have a common root in the determiner. The differing semantic and lexical representations is evident in the surface structure in this context. Therefore, the Lexical Theory demonstrates that the AP phrase “as happy as a dancing child” will be similar to the NP phrase “the happiness that a dancing child has.”[2] Given this property, the formation of adjectival noun is made possible and many adjectives can replace a noun or take the role of a noun if there is no noun in a certain context.

Syntactic theory of adjectival nouns[edit]

Syntax is the study of the arrangement of words and phrases to create a grammatical sentence. By studying a sentence from a syntactic perspective, adjectival noun formation can be identified. The syntactic analysis of the development of adjectival nouns uses indefinite nouns and pronouns. Definiteness describes the existential properties of a noun and a pronoun. Nouns and pronouns which are definite are very specific and can be identified in a given context whereas indefinite nouns and pronouns cannot be similarly identified nor are they specific in context. These indefinite nouns and pronouns have the same linguistic properties as an adjective and thus can be an adjectival noun. Some linguists refer these indefinite entities as a prop-word. The word one is an indefinite pronoun (prop-word) and therefore it is an entity that is not specific or identifiable in a given context.

For example, in the phrase 'the big one' what is big? Which big entity is being referenced to? These questions do not have clear answers as one is indefinite and also have adjective properties. In this case, another syntactical analysis of one in a different phrase 'the one person' would give 'one' the ability to take the role of a noun and the phrase can be simplified to 'The one.' The syntactical analysis follows the parameter of the agree system within the minimalist framework elaborated by Chomsky in 2000.[3] Under The Agree System the internal syntax of Determiner Phrases (DP) can be examined. This is shown in the picture on the right. The Agree system has the following assumptions:[4]

The Agree system; Internal syntax of the DP

The φ-features refer to the semantic markings that indicate the defining features of a person, number, and/or gender. These markings are encoded in nouns, pronouns and of course, prop words. These assumptions state that a determiner does not have an φ-feature and therefore needs to find a value for the syntactic analysis to reach semantic comprehension as a syntactic goal. In this context, an adjective usually has a lexically valued φ-feature which means that an adjective can function as the complementizer to the determiner.

Given these properties, we notice that some adjectives can function as nouns.

  • One person → The one
  • The poor person → The poor

Use of adjectival nouns in different languages[edit]

Adjectival nouns can take on different lexical roles in each language. For example, adjectives can transform into nouns (as in the case of English) or into verbs (as in the case of Japanese).

Adjectival nouns in Germanic languages[edit]

Adjectival nouns in English[edit]

The most common appearance of the adjectival noun in English is when an adjective is used to indicate a collective group. This happens in the case where a phrase such as 'the poor people' becomes 'the poor'. The adjective 'poor' is nominalized and the thus, the noun, 'people' disappears.

Transformation of adjective to adjectival noun
syntax tree
poor functioning as an adjective 
syntax tree
poor functioning as adjectival noun 

A major property of an English adjective is its gradable quality. When a noun becomes an adjective it often loses its plurality but takes on these scalar properties.

Catholics go to church every Sunday.
How Catholic are they?

When the noun "the Catholics" is inflected to become an adjective, it loses the plural morpheme -s but takes on the gradable quality of being able to be "more Catholic" or "less Catholic".

Old English[edit]

It is assumed that since there was a presence of Adjectival inflection in Old English (OE) it was more common for adjectival nouns to occur. The decline of adjectival nouns is attributed to the loss of adjectival inflection throughout Middle English (ME). The table below shows the higher frequency of adjectival nouns in OE the decrease of adjectival nouns in Middle English, ME.[4]

The Frequency of Adjectives Used as Nouns (per 100,000 words).

Frequency 316.7 331.4 255.2 73.4 70.1 78.9 91.1

Yamamura 2010: pg. 351

Early Old English (EOE) includes O1 and O2, and Late Old English (LOE) O3 and O4. Early Middle English (EME) includes M1 and M2, and Late Middle English (LME) M3 and M4.

The time frame of the abbreviated English era:[4]

O1 (–850), O2 (850–950), O3 (950–1050), O4 (1050–1150),

M1 (1150–1250), M2 (1250–1350), M3 (1350–1420), M4 (1420–1500),

E1 (1500–1570), E2 (1570–1640), and E3 (1640–1710).

Adjectival nouns German[edit]

Adjectives in German contain various information, such as case and gender, and therefore must agree with the noun that they are modifying. The adjective alt (old), for example, will develop a separate lexical entry that carries the morphological and syntactic requirements of the head noun that has been removed.[5] These requirements being the inflectional endings of the language.

der          Alt-e
'the old man'
Sadock 1991
den          Alt-en 
'the old man'
Sadock 1991

der Alte, is the masculine nominative case in German and means the old man[6] derived from the adjective Alt, which is surfacing as both the adjective and the noun by adding the appropriate inflections.[5]

Adjectival nouns in Greek[edit]

Ancient Greek uses adjectival nouns substantively to remove the need for plural gender nouns such as, "men", "women" and "things".[7] The use of these nouns are needed in English because they bare information about case, gender and number of the noun and the adjective modifying the noun does not. In Greek the adjective that is modifying that noun does carry that information and is therefore able to remove the noun entirely.

PL. FEM. many 
the many women
Balme & Lawall 2003
PL. Nueter. beautiful
the beautiful things
Balme & Lawall 2003

Adjectival nouns in Scandinavian languages[edit]

Adjectival nouns in Swedish[edit]

Similar to English adjectival nouns are used as a plural definite like in (e.g., the unemployed) and with nationality words (e.g., The Swedish). Contrastively, Swedish does not require "one or ones" when dealing with count nouns (e.g., The old cat is slower than the new (one). Through the use of inflection (incorporating the number and gender of the noun) Swedish is able to evade the need for a visible noun when describing a noun, this phenomenon is also seen when inflecting adjectival nouns.[8]

Standard use of an adjectival noun:

A noun phrase with both the noun and the adjective.

A noun phrase with both the noun and the adjective.

en      blind
SG.NOM  blind
'a blind person'
Holmes (1994)
A noun phrase with only the adjectival noun

A noun phrase with only the adjectival noun.

de     blind-e
PL.NOM blind-PL
'the blind'
Holmes (1994)

An example of an indefinite use

de         död-a  
PL.NOM dead-PL
'the dead'
Holmes (1994)

The use of number and gender inflection:

neuter singular: 
det       nya
N. SG.   New 
'the new (thing)' 
Holmes (1994)
feminine plural: 
den      gamla 
F. SG.   woman  
'the old woman'
Holmes (1994)

Adjectival nouns in Slavic langauges[edit]

Adjectival nouns in Russian[edit]

In Russian, the conversion (linguistics) or zero derivation process of an adjective becoming a noun is, in fact, the only type of conversion that is allowed. This process functions as a critical means of addition to the open class category of nouns. Of all the Slavic languages, Russian uses the attributive nouns the most. When the adjective is nominalized, the adjectival inflection alone expresses, case, number, and gender, omitting the noun altogether.[9] For example the Russian word "receiving room" - приемная комната becomes приемнАЯ which means "reception room". The adjective receiving, takes the nominal from reception, thus subsuming the noun, room. Many adjectival nouns in Russian serve to create nouns. These common forms of nouns are known as “deleted nouns”, of which there are three types. The first subtype of this derivation happens in the specific context of within a sentence or phrase, and refers back to the original noun which it is describing. For example, in the phrase, “the chocolate cakes are better than the vanilla”, the adjective “vanilla” has become a noun and is assumed to mean “the vanilla ones”. Such a derivation is contextually sensitive to the lexical meaning of the phrase it is a part of. This content specific use of adjectival nouns also happens in the second subtype, in which nouns can be deleted, or assumed, in colloquial expressions. For example, in Russian, one might say “the on-coming” when referring to an on-coming headwind, in which the verb, “headwind” is assumed. The third subtype is known as the “permanent” adjectival noun and consists of an adjective that stands alone as a noun. These adjectives have become nouns over the course of history and most speakers are aware of their implicit adjectival meaning.

Central Semitic languages[edit]

Adjectival nouns in Arabic[edit]

Adjectival nouns occur frequently in the Classical and Modern Standard Arabic. An example would be الإسلامية (al-ʾislamiyyah), where ʾislamiyyah is the adjective 'Islamic', and al-ʾIslamiyyah can be translated as "things Islamic." A further example would be الكبير (al-kabīr), meaning 'the big one', from الكبير (kabīr) 'big'.

Related concepts[edit]

Different type of Adjectival Noun[edit]

A noun that functions as an adjective can also be called an adjectival noun in English (e.g. Fowler [1]), but it is nowadays more often called a noun adjunct or attributive noun.

Adnominal Adjective[edit]

This section is intended to display the development of adnominal adjectives in the history of English. The development of the adnominal adjective is a pre-requisite to the development of adjectival nouns and is therefore relevant for linguistic scholars who seek to further their understanding the development of English nomination. The syntactical structural analyses of adnominal adjectives can be based on assumptions from the Chomskyan framework of generative syntax analysis that illustrates the surface properties of adnominal adjectives:

1. OE adnominal adjectives appear in preposition and/or in postposition to the noun. 
2. OE prenominal adnominal adjectives assume two types of inflectional endings, i.e. weak 
   and/or strong, whereas postnominal adjectives assume only strong endings. 
3. OE prenominal adjectives occur in a stack (this claim is at odds with most views in the 
   traditional literature), whereas postnominal adjectives are not stacked. 
4. OE prenominal adjectives surface after their prenominal complements, whereas postnominal 
   adjective surface before their postnominal complements.
Pysz (2006)

Adjectival Noun Placement Examples (1a-1c) illustrate the property (1). (1a) shows that adnominal adjectives can be placed in preposition towards the noun. (1b) shows that adnominal adjectives can be placed in postposition towards the noun. (1c) shows that there are phrases where adnominal adjectives can be placed in preposition and another placed in postposition towards the noun.

(1a)    (on) þisum lænan stoclife 
        (on) this fleeting dwelling-place.DAT 
        (in) this fleeting dwelling-place’ 
(1b)    (in) þissum life ondwardum 
        (in) this life.DAT present 
        (in) this present life’ 
(1c)    (mid) soðum geleafan untweogendum 
        (with) true faith.DAT staunch 
        (with) true staunch faith
Pysz (2006)

Inflectional Patterning of Placement Examples (2a-2f) illustrate the property (2). (2a-2c) shows that preposition adjectives inflect weak. (2d-2f) shows that preposition adjectives inflect strong.

(2a)    se dol-a fæder                                      
        the foolish.M.WK father.M                                
(2b)     seo eald-e modor                                
        the old.F.WK mother.F                             
(2c)     þæt wis-e cild                                          
        the wise.N.WK child.N                            
(2d)     dol-Ø fæder  
        foolish.M.ST father.M
(2e)     eald-u modor
        old.F.ST mother.F
(2f)     wis-Ø cild
        wise.N.ST child.N
 Pysz (2006)

For clarity, let us specify that the choice between the two inflectional patterns depends on the syntactic context in which prenominal adjectives appear. The inflection form in which the preposition adjectives appear is consistent. An adjective has a weak inflection form in this environment.

  • Preceded by a demonstrative (either proximal or distal)
  • Preceded by a possessive pronoun or genitive NP
  • In the vocative case
  • In the comparative form (regularly)
  • In the superlative form (less regularly)

(2g-2i) shows that postposition adjectives can only inflect strong. (2j-2l) shows the hypothetical example of postposition adjective inflect weak,

(2g)    leodhatan grimm-e                           
        persecutors fierce.ST                                    
(2h)    (mid) soðum geleafan untweogend-um       
        (with) true faith staunch.ST                             
(2i)    (mid) þone ilcan ceaddan iung-ne                
        (with) the same Chad young.ST                    
(2j)     *Se fæder is dol-a  
        the father.M is foolish.M.WK
(2k)     *Seo modor is eald-e
        the mother.F is old.F.WK
(2l)     *Đæt cild is wis-e
        the child.N is wise.N.WK
Pysz (2006)

Adjective Stacking Examples (3a-3b) illustrate the property (3). (3a) shows a stack of two prenominal adjectives which inflect weak (3b) shows a stack of two prenominal adjectives which inflect strong

(3a)    se gooda heofenlica fæder 
        the good.WK heavenly.WK father 
(3b)    rice hæþene men 
        rich.ST heathen.ST men 

Aforementioned, postnominal adjectives are not stacked which just mean no postnominal adjectives can occur next to each other.

The placement of adjectival complements Examples (4a-4c) illustrate the property (4). (4a-4b) are meant to show that whenever both an adjective and its complement appear in preposition to the noun, the former usually surfaces after the latter, i.e. [Complement of Adjective+Adjective+Noun]. (4c-4d) are meant to show that whenever both an adjective and its complement appear in postposition to the noun, the former usually surfaces before the latter, i.e. [N+Adjective+Complement of Adjective].

(4a)    Gode andfenge onsægednys 
        God.DAT agreeable sacrifice 
(4b)    Gode sylfum god bræð 
        God.DAT self.DAT good breath 
(4c)    se apostol gebyld þurh ðone halgan gast 
        the apostle exhorted through the Holy Ghost 
(4d)    ane dohtor wlitig-e on ansyne 
        a daughter.ACC beautiful.ACC in sight 
Pysz (2006)

In conclusion, the analysis of Adnominal adjectives development shows that mixed account yield the best result where prenominal and postnominal adjectives receive a different structural treatment. It is the case that prenominal adjectives are treated as adjuncts to NP while postnominal adjectives as reduced relatives.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Štekauer, P; Lieber, R (2005). Handbook of Word-Formation. Netherlands: Springer. pp. 147–187. 
  2. ^ a b Bowers, John S. (1975). "Some adjectival nominalizations in Enlgish". Lingua 37: 341–361. 
  3. ^ Roger, Martin; Michael, David; Juan, Uriageraka (2000). "Minimalist Inquiries: The Framework," Step by Step: Essays on Minimalist Syntax in Honour of Howard Lasnik. Cambridge: MIT Press. 
  4. ^ a b c Yamamura, Shuto (2010). "The Development of Adjectives used as Nouns in the History of English". English Linguistics 27 (2): 344–363. 
  5. ^ a b Sadock, Jerrold M. (1991). Autolexical syntax: A Theory of Parallel Grammatical Representations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 41. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Balme, Maurice; Lawall, Gilbert (2003). Athenaze (second ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 96. 
  8. ^ Holmes, Philip; Hinchliffe, Ian (1994). Swedish: A compressive grammar (Second ed.). London and New York: Routledge. pp. 96–102. 
  9. ^ Swan, Oscar (April 1980). "The Derivation of the Russian Adjectival Noun". Russian Linguistics 4 (4): 397–404. 
  10. ^ Pysz, A (2006). "The structural location of adnominal adjectives: Prospects for Old English". Theoretical Linguistic 3 (3): 59–85.