Adjectives that Look Like Nouns

Parts of speech are like compass points for language, helping to navigate the grammar map. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs—they are the north, south, east, and west directions of the word. Throw the conjunction and preposition somewhere, and we’ll all get home safe somehow. These labels may seem like fixed points, but English is much more flexible than it seems, and dictionaries have policies for dealing with words that fall between the cracks.


‘Imaginary’ plays different grammatical roles in the phrases “an imaginary friend” and “beauty of the imagination”, but its meaning remains unchanged.

For example, almost any noun can modify another noun:


Apple tree

music teacher

school bus

To save space in the dictionary, we simply label nouns that frequently modify other nouns as routine for, because the meaning does not change significantly with the change in syntactic position. Why waste space with a grammatical detail that isn’t misleading? There is a ruthless effect in dictionary editing.

Nouns are used as adjectives, fine. But what about the opposite direction? Sometimes adjectives are also used as nouns in ways that do not change their essential meaning, only their grammatical role in the sentence:




the unknown

These terms are often abstract or philosophical when used in this way: “an imaginary friend” is a more common construct than “beauty of the imagination” and “a perfect meal.” less theoretical than “the eternal quest for perfection”. That is why this style of using adjectives as nouns is often found in theological writings or literary and artistic criticism:

All theological refutations of tragedy depend on similar conceptions of tragedy and Christianity.—Kathryn Reklis, Theological StudiesMarch 2009

The messy relationship between the enormous camera and the oddly small chair, between the cramped interior and the endless sky, exaggerated by Magritte imbued the picture with a contrasting surrealism. with Kootz’s earlier statement of “eager precision.”—Carol Troyen, Art NewsletterDecember 2004

But there are also completely common uses:


Bad people


Sometimes this usage is intentionally poetic:

America is beautiful

Give me your tired, poor, shrinking crowds

Lucky people are gentle

And adjectives can sometimes even be used this way without a definite article:

It appeals to both young and old.

Such words are, for the most part, defined only as adjectives. Some adjectives function like this noun (sometimes called .). nominalization adjective or materialize adjective or absolute adjective) are in fact defined as nouns in our dictionary, but only because they have different meanings as nouns beyond an adjective meaning. Both die And Good are examples: “the death of the night” is different from “the naked and the dead”, just as “it is for your own good” is different from “the good will be rewarded”. Dictionary users can reasonably expect to find these meanings in noun entries, and they often have usage notes such as “commonly used” or “used with the.” It is simply logical to group them with their nominal cousins.

See more:  Having a Think About 'Another Think/Thing Coming'

Others have narrow or specific noun uses, such as mathematical senses for Unknown And imagine (“a complex number (like 2+3i) has a non-zero imaginary part”), which explains their place in the dictionary as nouns rather than adjectives.

There are times when grammar is hard and fast and there are times when distinguishing without difference is not helpful. Dictionaries can be a very practical reference when words and grammar enter the realm of mystery.

DISCOVER MORE: Nouns that look like adjectives

Categories: Usage Notes

Leave a Comment