At least since the 80s linguists have debated whether simple phrases like the cake are NPs with determiners in the specifier position or DPs with NP complements. Substantivized adjectives seem to me to provide a simple but compelling argument for the latter analysis:

  1. The meek and the happy must be the same type of phrase as the cake, since they are distributionally equivalent to the latter. The latter is either an NP or a DP, so the meek and the happy are also either NPs or DPs.
  2. It makes little sense to analyze the meek and the happy as NPs, because that would require analyzing meek and happy as noun heads. But meek and happy are adjectives rather than nouns, even when preceded by the article: note that they still can take, for example, adverbial adjuncts (the very meek, the blissfully happy). It’s far simpler to consider the (very) meek and the (blissfully) happy to be DPs of which (very) meek and (blissfully) happy are AP complements.
  3. Because the cake is the same type of phrase as the meek and the happy, it must also be a DP.

This seems to me both simpler and more persuasive than the arguments for the DP analysis which I’ve read in books and articles. I won’t call it airtight, since I can see ways around it—but they require adding more complexity to one’s analysis than I consider justified.

But am I mistaken? Is there an error in the argument I’ve made, or a strong objection to it? It seems to me so simple that I’m surprised I couldn’t find it anywhere. Perhaps there are e.g. problems I don’t recognize with analyzing e.g. the meek as a DP with an AP complement.

  • "The meek" is an NP with the adjective "meek" as a fused modifier-head. It is, of course, understood as "the meek people". That's been a pretty well-accepted analysis for quite some time.
    – BillJ
    Jul 13, 2020 at 16:39

1 Answer 1


While the analysis of phrases like "the meek" and "the happy" is debated, one common strategy is to view them as containing some syntactic element without an overt phonological representation that belongs to the category "noun".

This is sometimes argued to be a case of ellipsis (e.g. "The rich, the poor, the obvious: Arguing for an ellipsis analysis of 'adjectives used as nouns'", Christine Günther, 2018).

The DP analysis also requires postulating a syntactic element without an overt phonological representation (a "zero determiner"), unless you want to say that the phrases "water" and "frogs" in the sentences "Water is wet" and "We saw frogs when we went down to the pond" are different types of phrases than "the water" and "the frogs", or that the words "water" and "frogs" are determiners.

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    "The rich" is an NP with the adjective "rich" as a fused modifier-head. It is, of course, understood as "the rich people". I think this is a much better analysis than the ellipsis one.
    – BillJ
    Jul 13, 2020 at 16:35
  • In addition, English is exceptional in that the rich doesn't mean that rich person, as it would in most languages with articulated noun phrases. I don't think it's an argument for anything.
    – jlawler
    Jul 13, 2020 at 22:35
  • Thanks for the replies. I figured my argument would run against current thinking—but I didn’t know how. It still does appeal intuitively to me to analyze the meek as a DP with an AP complement, but I’ll look into the more widely accepted analyses, which will probably dispel me of my notion.
    – Alan T.
    Jul 14, 2020 at 2:26

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