Word Matters Podcast

When Nouns Act Like Adjectives

Word Matters, Episode 76

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We all know that nouns have a specific job. So do verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and the like. But what happens when they start moonlighting in other roles? Meet the attributive noun.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, when a word dresses up as a member of another part of speech. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Words can be placed into categories based on their functions. Nouns do one thing, verbs another, adjectives another still, but sometimes a word from one category sneaks into the spot in a sentence that's usually the territory of words from another category. Then what? I'll address this phenomenon. We all know that a noun is a word for a person, place, or thing. A noun also is an animal, a quality, an idea, or an action, but sometimes we see nouns in the place that an adjective typically goes. An adjective, of course, is a word that describes a noun, red, soft, loud, cumbersome, dreadful, delightful. So sometimes we see a noun in that spot just before a noun that usually belongs to an adjective.

So for example, we might have a business meeting. Business looks like it's modifying the word meeting. It is modifying the word meeting, but is business actually an adjective then? What is its grammatical category?

Ammon Shea: It's a confusion. I would call it a noun, but a sneaky noun, unless there's some other better term for it.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's like a noun that's all suited up as an adjective, but we call these attributive nouns because they are joined directly to the noun in order to describe it. It is not actually an adjective. And as a definer, one has to decide whether or not a word that is behaving very much like an adjective is, in truth, an adjective or if it is this other category of thing called an attributive noun.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a noun that gives its attributes to another noun.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: So like wine glass, school bus, office building, research paper, these are all kind of examples of words that we wouldn't categorize as adjectives, like wine isn't an adjective there.

Emily Brewster: That's right. We mostly distinguish these attributive nouns from actual adjectives by looking at two particular criteria. The first one is that an attributive noun can only modify the noun when it comes immediately before it. So for example, you can have a business meeting, but you can't have a meeting that is business.

Peter Sokolowski: Uh-huh. And that's sort of a clue that it's not an adjective.

Emily Brewster: That's right. That's one of the things that tells you that it's an attributive noun, not an adjective.

Peter Sokolowski: That's one of those tests that I remember in our training for defining that E. Ward Gilman, who trained so many of our Merriam-Webster editors, that's one of those tests that I learned from him. If you can't use this in the same place that an adjective would fall, syntactically, we can grammatically say it's not an adjective.

Emily Brewster: That tells you that it is not an adjective. If it is an actual adjective, it should be able to do the things that a regular adjective can do.

Now, the other characteristic that Gil taught us was that adjectives typically have comparative forms and attributive nouns do not.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah.

Emily Brewster: So you can have a business meeting, but a meeting can't be more business than another, right? A singles bar is not more singles than another bar, a school bus is not more school than another kind of bus, unless we're being playful with the language, and then we can actually make these attributive nouns into true adjectives. And when we do, then they do take on these comparative forms. But in common use, what we are looking at is whether the noun meets these two criteria.

Ammon Shea: I have always, I have to say, felt like a point of contention with Merriam-Webster's house style on this because I feel like there are perhaps certain post-participle adjectives which do not permit comparative forms. Convoluted argument, isn't convoluted an adjective?

Emily Brewster: Yes, it is. And something can be more convoluted than another.

Ammon Shea: Okay. I guess you can be more or less so it's just that it's not whether it takes the E-R ending and could be more or less

Emily Brewster: That's right. Can it be comparative at all? Just how morphologically it is comparative or not, that's actually beside the point. What we want to know is can it be compared? So for example, you can have an apartment building, but one building can't be more apartment than another.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a good one.

Emily Brewster: An office building isn't more office than another. It can be more officey, right? If you want to get playful with the word office and turn office into an adjective, you would say officey and then a building could be more officey than another if it were better equipped for having offices in it, for example.

This quest of attributive nouns and whether or not they're actually easing over into true adjectival category is one of the things that a definer, a lexicographer, has to master, have to ask yourself these questions as you are addressing these sorts of words in the dictionary.

I like to think about all the words that are used attributively, these attributive nouns that formerly had adjective forms or had adjective versions. I recently came across the word bicycular. That's a good one, right? Now we say bicycle. We use bicycle as an attributive noun, a bicycle shop, a bicycle tire, but time was, we could that it was a bicycular shop or a bicycular tire.

Peter Sokolowski: So that word must have had a pretty short lifespan, I'm guessing just because the bicycle itself is relatively recent invention so this would've been like a late 19th-century term?

Emily Brewster: I think so. I found the term in Webster's Second Unabridged...

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Emily Brewster: ... which is published in 1934. And that dictionary has got a lot of words that had relatively short lifespans and relatively short breadth of use.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, that's the dictionary that has everything but the kitchen sink. Bicycular is in the Oxford English Dictionary and it does label it as chiefly humorous and rare. But yes, from the late 1800s. And a bicycular garment, I like that. But really there's a pragmatic point here, which is to say that if the dictionary defined as an adjective every noun that functioned as a modifier, it would balloon. The semantic part of a definition, a wine glass is a glass that contains wine, so why would we then have another entry that would define wine as not a noun? My point is it would waste space. But this leads directly to a rule that we do have, which is that we don't enter self-evident compounds, or at least traditionally in the print dictionary and for hundreds of years, there has been a strong prejudice against them. It's a little different with the online dictionary because there are very common compounds, one that comes to mind is orange juice, that was never in a print Merriam-Webster dictionary because it was simply the juice of an orange, there was no point in entering it except that those two words come next to each other so frequently in the English language that, ultimately, maybe they do merit entry. A very modern perspective.

Ammon Shea: But also some dictionaries, and I don't know if ours does this, but I know that Oxford dictionaries used to do something which was sometimes confusing, though it makes sense if you read the front copy, which was that common attributive nouns like apple pie would be entered if they had a secondary meaning...

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Ammon Shea: ... "as American as apple pie," but they wouldn't enter cherry pie because nobody uses it in a distinct sense. But just coming to the language, you might just say, "Well, why apple pie, but not cherry pie?" If you don't know that cherry pie has no secondary meaning, it's very, very confusing, potentially. Though it does make sense, particularly from a space-saving perspective.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And I think our arguably also, just from a semantic perspective, we cannot practically and it is not so useful for a native speaker of English to be able to look up apple pie, pumpkin pie, cherry pie, key lime pie, all of these different things. It seems unnecessary and would clutter things up a bit.

Peter Sokolowski: The fact is there's a little Merriam-Webster slice of this history that's specific to one of our famous editions, the third edition, Webster's Third, the unabridged edition of 1961, and the English professor Michael Adams, who's a great scholar of dictionaries, one of the great writers, about dictionaries, wrote a great article about this and he actually quotes the memo. So if you'll indulge me just to read a little tiny bit of this essay by Michael Adams.

Now, Philip Gove was the editor at Merriam-Webster, the Editor in Chief of Webster's Third, he recognized a grammatical category overlooked by previous lexicographers, namely nouns that our "often attributive, used to modify other nouns", which is exactly what we're talking about here today. And according to an article published in October 1964 in American Speech, a great journal of linguistics, Gove sent a directive to members of the editorial staff, it was a memo, and the memo read: "Our system of functional labels permits no such designation as one-third adjective or partly adjective, and we are not adopting such OED designations as 'quasi-substantive' or 'tending toward an adjective.'" And so he basically said, "We are going to have a new label and the label will say often atrib, or often attributive", which is kind of...

Ammon Shea: Fighting words.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. It's kind of great. Well, again, it was his ruthless efficiency, ultimately. He just found a way to make a clean, easy designation for a very common function of nouns.

Emily Brewster: Yes. It is a very common function of nouns and they are not true adjectives, they do not meet the markers of true adjectives. You know, another characteristic that I didn't mention is that a true adjective can follow a linking verb, like be or seem, but we do not have a meeting that seems business.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right, right, right.

Emily Brewster: We would say it seems business-like, it's a business meeting or a meeting... an office building, a building does not seem very office.

Peter Sokolowski: We have a reflex in English to make a playful adjective out of those. Businessy. Officey. Many probably aren't in the dictionary, but they're kind of playful.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And we employ a suffix that does that job. Now the styling for attributive nouns is also different from an actual adjective. They don't get separated by a comma. So if you have, for example, "the experienced summer baseball league staff."

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: There are no commas in there at all.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: "New work safety rules." Also, there aren't commas there. And then the other factor is that the attributive noun will always come closer to the noun. So if you're talking about a local singles bar, it's not a singles local bar because singles is the attributive noun...

Peter Sokolowski: I see.

Emily Brewster: ... so that comes right next to the actual noun, and then the true adjective will come before it.

You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more words acting up. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: While it's true that nouns dress up like adjectives, it's also the case that adjectives occasionally parade around like nouns. More on these interesting behaviors next. There's also another category of words that is very similar. We have these attributive nouns, but we also have nominalized adjectives.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: And these are adjectives that function like nouns. So you have the quick and the dead, the old and the young.

Peter Sokolowski: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: But these are often kind of academic, right? This abstraction. We talk about the imaginary or the unknown.

Ammon Shea: The abstract.

Peter Sokolowski: The abstract, the surreal. I think that this reflex to nominalizing, to make a noun out of an adjective, often is in that kind of context, a kind of criticism or cultural criticism or academic writing.

Ammon Shea: You can only use...

Emily Brewster: Or poetic writing.

Peter Sokolowski: Or poetic, absolutely.

Ammon Shea: But they only function with a definite article, you wouldn't have a good, a bad, an ugly.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: You're right. They are always preceded by the definite article and not the indefinite article. They can be preceded by the possessive pronoun. "Give me your tired, your poor..."

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Emily Brewster: "... your huddled masses yearning to be free."

Ammon Shea: Oh. Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Those are adjectives that are nominalized.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Maybe about 10 years ago that I feel like there was a big trend to nominalize adjectives in a different way, and this was wholly playful. We would hear people talking about the olds.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Like, "Oh, I feel like I'm one of the olds," meaning I'm one of the old people, or "Bring your crazy to this blah, blah, blah."

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Here are some that I found on Twitter. "Someone who tolerates my crazy," or, "The funny in the commercial." Or, "If those dumbs were looking." These are not true nouns or not yet, they certainly could become true nouns if they continue with this kind of use because, unlike attributive nouns, which don't have these markers of true adjectives, they can't be comparative, in a case like this, "if those dumbs were looking," it very much is functioning as a noun, it's in the right place in the utterance...

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hmm.

Emily Brewster: ... and it has a plural marker in this case so it really is functioning as a true noun.

Peter Sokolowski: It's governing a verb too.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: So it's doing everything that a noun does. And eventually, if this really caught on and we had significant evidence of these continuing to be used in this true noun sense, then we would have to cover them.

Ammon Shea: I feel like when you say there was a big trend in the nominalization of adjectives, kind of, the fact that olds is self-describing is implied strongly there.

Emily Brewster: Right? Yeah. I suppose it is.

Let us know what you think about Word Matters, review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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