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The Use of Adjectives as Nouns in English

written by: Meetu • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 11/29/2013

Nouns and adjectives very easily can perform each others' task. It is a little difficult for ESL students to understand this interchange of roles. The best method is to understand what each part of speech does and examine a word in a sentence to find out what role it is playing.

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    Nouns and Adjectives

    English Language Arts Names of persons, places, or things are known as nouns in the English Language. Some examples of nouns are water, ostrich, ram, and computer. Nouns can be studied in detail at: The Roles of Nouns in English Grammar.

    Adjectives are words that are used to describe a noun. In other words, adjectives tell us the quality of nouns. Examples of adjectives are fresh, fiery, tall, and new. Adjectives can be studied in detail at: Learning English: Adverbs Versus Adjectives. Using the example words in sentences:

    • I like to drink fresh (adjective) water (noun);
    • Rafting in the fiery (adjective) Ganga (noun) is very exciting;
    • Ram is a tall (adjective) man (noun);
    • I have bought a new (adjective) computer(noun).

    Fresh is describing the quality of water, fiery of the river Ganga, tall of the man named Ran, and new is describing the computer.

    Every word ideally belongs to a certain part of speech. But, this does not stop a word from playing a role different from the part of speech it belongs to. Many times, nouns are used to describe other nouns, and adjectives are used as nouns. Nouns being used as adjectives has already been discussed in the article: Activity to Teach Nouns Versus Adjectives. Through this article we look at adjectives being used as nouns.

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    Adjectives as Nouns

    Adjectives are often used as nouns. The specific cases are:

    Ellipses of Noun Phrases: Ellipsis is the shortening of a phrase. In this case, we specifically look at noun phrases. Adjectives can act as nouns and can be a subject, object, or complement in a sentence.

    Lets us look at the following examples:

    • 'The intelligent are not arrogant'
    • The meek shall inherit the earth.'
    • The old and the young were evacuated from the building.’
    • The rich are privileged.’

    The rich’, the intelligent’, the meek’, ‘the old’, and ‘the young’ are adjectives acting as nouns. The full noun phrases could be:

    • The intelligent (people) are not arrogant’.
    • 'The meek (humans) shall inherit the earth.’
    • The old (men) and the young (children) were evacuated from the building.’
    • The rich (people) are privileged.’

    In the examples illustrated above, the adjectives acting as nouns form a part of the subject.

    Further using the above examples as objects:

    • ‘He is a lover of the intelligent’.
    • ‘She has an eye for the rich’,
    • ‘He is a veteran amongst the young.’

    The complete sentences could be:

    • ‘He is a lover of the intelligent (being)’.
    • ‘She has an eye for the rich (men) ’,
    • ‘He is a veteran amongst the young (students).’

    Remember:

    1. The definite article ’the’ is combined with these adjectives so that they can be used as nouns.
    2. These adjectives are always plural and take a plural verb.

    Nouns Formed by Conversion

    Adjectives can be used as proper nouns, common nouns, and abstract nouns. When a word is used as a different part of speech without introducing any change to the form of the original word it is known as conversion. Let us look at some examples:

    • ‘The church elder frowned on kissing in the back of cars.’ (Noun)
    • ‘The elder man used his cane.’ (Adjective)
    • ‘He kept the fast for a week.’ (Noun)
    • ‘Reena and Sheena are fast friends’ (Adjective)
    • ‘This is my right!’ (Noun)
    • ‘He is the right man for this position.’ (Adjective)
    • ‘Mahatma Gandhi is his ideal.’ (Noun)
    • ‘The ideal king is expected to be wise and generous.

    The above sentences make it clear how the same word can be used as a different part of speech.

    Other Cases

    Proper nouns like Indian, American, and African are words that can act as adjectives as well as nouns. It totally depends on the usage of the word that is whether it is in the plural form or the singular form. If the word is in the plural form it is acting as a noun and in the singular form it could be acting as an adjective or a noun.

    Let us look at some examples:

    • 'The Indian brass work is popular in the west.' (Adjective)
    • 'The Indians are going for elections.' (Noun)
    • 'The African nations are taking cogent steps to fight apartheid'. (Adjective)
    • 'The Africans are hardworking people'. (Noun)
    • 'The American tourist visited the museum.' (Adjective)
    • 'The American shopped in the market.' (Noun)

    Words like Indian and African have been used in the sense of ‘of India, of Africa. Remember, that once again the usage of the word determines that what part or speech the word belongs to.

    Practice Exercise is available for download at: Exercise - Nouns & Adjectives

    Reference:

    High School English Grammar & Composition by Wrenn & Martin