Is Converting Adjectives to Nouns an Automatic?

Rob Kyff on

The linguistic purist Tradition Al discusses an alarming trend with his more permissive friend Open Mind Ed.

Al: As a student of linguistics, have you noticed the appalling practice of turning adjectives into nouns? Let me give you a few examples from advertising slogans: Find your fabulous; Rethink possible; Spread the happy; The future of awesome; Unlock your more.

Meanwhile, reporters refer to presidential hopefuls while the military experiments with nonlethals, engineers call a minor abnormality a funny, vegans avoid dairy and computer stores hawk peripherals. Brokers trade derivatives, mutuals and municipals while business execs review financials and quarterbacks call audibles.

Believe me, people are getting fed up. Look how angry they got when Hillary Clinton used the noun "deplorables"!

Ed: Uh ... somehow, I don't think it was her turning the adjective deplorable"into a noun that angered them. The fact is that converting adjectives to nouns has always been common in English. You, for instance, just used two adjectives as nouns: linguistics and the military.

Lopping the nouns off adjective-noun combos is a handy way to save time, particularly when people know the implied noun. So, we speak of a convertible (car), a daily (newspaper), an eight o'clock (class), a primary (election), the undecided (voters), the preliminaries (early rounds), an automatic (weapon), a quarterly (journal), a hypothetical (proposition), a final (test), a forward (basketball player) and an incomplete (grade).

Al: A great writer like Shakespeare would never have stooped to the all-time lows of us moderns!


Ed: Lows? Moderns? In fact, even Shakespeare converted adjectives to nouns. In "The Tempest," for instance, Caliban calls freshwater springs freshes. That's right, not freshets, but freshes. Likewise, Walt Whitman referred to himself as a rough, and Abraham Lincoln faulted the overcautious Gen. George McClellan for having the slows.

Al: Does this mean people will soon be talking of predictables, versatiles, inappropriates, viables and matures?

Ed: Each of these unmentionables might indeed someday become an allowable. In a language where you can wear a mini, be a regular, wash your delicates, aid an indigent, get a physical, phone your ex, watch a western, gather on the town common, hire a domestic, subscribe to a monthly, drive an automatic or lose a remote in the sofa, anything can happen.

Al: I think I'll mix myself an old-fashioned.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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