Example: headstrong

As a noun: The headstrong don't easily give up.

As an adjective: The headstrong youth.

4 Answers 4


While there are lot of Adj/N pairs in English, your example seems to be of the specific type 'Nominal Adjectives' (e.g. 'the meek', 'the poor').

I wouldn't say they're nouns in their own right; you can't clearly swap them into other sentences ('A headstrong doesn't give up' or 'I'm looking for a headstrong'.)

Even when it is true that there are identical N/Adj pairs, they're often nouns used as adjectives ('ham' in 'ham sandwich'); that is, 'noun adjuncts'.

In addition, there's a very common practice in English (very popular in recent marketing) of what you could call 'zero-derived deadjectival nouns': 'Think different', 'Eat fresh', etc. Less obviously marketing-based examples are things like 'I was attacked by some toughs'.

Finally, English has a number of non-homophonous homonym N/Adj pairs: e.g. 'concrete'/'concrete'. However, even when such a pair is homophonous, it would be the same: a homonym/homophone pair of two distinct words.

  • Other words for nouns used as adjectives are attributive and attributively. I would also like to know if there is a term for "the rich", "the sick", etc. Dec 6, 2013 at 2:31
  • I believe all such examples are 'nominal adjectives', as above. Also 'the best', 'the French', 'the opposite'. Dec 6, 2013 at 6:02
  • I think these are all cases where a word's lexical class in one thing but syntactically it's being used as another thing. "onion soup" is an example of lexical noun-> syntactic adjective, "the poor" is an example of lexical adjective -> syntactic noun. Dec 6, 2013 at 8:39
  • 1
    From a German perspective, ham sandwich and headstrong youthlook very different: ham sandwich would be a composite noun (Schinkenbrot, if you like), not a syntactic construction. Jan 16, 2014 at 16:11
  • @virtualnobi: Yes there are multiple occasions when English words might work as noun and adjective. One is what they have multiple senses with different parts of speech, that's very common. Another is certain adjectives being able to be used as nouns for groups of people especially such as "the poor", "the sick", "the meek". And confusion with attributive nouns functioning syntactically like adjectives is the occasion that is like compound nouns in German. So the comparison with German here actually makes a good case for "morphosyntax". Jan 16, 2014 at 17:29

The best term to denote headstrong when it functions like a noun is nominal. The term nominal is broader than the the term noun. Any word that functions as the head of a noun phrase is a nominal. Thus if the head of a noun phrase looks like an adjective (e.g. the good, the helpful, the first, the best, etc.), then one can use the term "nominal" to denote it.

The terminology in this area is of course not used consistently. There is confusion about the distinction between nouns, nominals, and substantives. For most of us, the noun concept is relatively clear. The term nominal is less clear, but my understanding of it is that it is a broader concept, encompassing nouns, pronouns, and any other word that functions as the head of a noun phrase. The term substantive is older and has fallen out of use. It seems to have been more prominent in the grammars of European languages. It denoted a noun in the narrow sense (not including pronouns and adjectives used as nouns).

The class of adjectives that can be nominals if they are plural and introduced by the is large, e.g. the old, the fat, the skinny, the friendly, the robust, etc. But there may be an animacy requirement on the adjectives that are used in this way. It doesn't seem to work for adjectives that modify inanimate objects, e.g. *the wide, *the red, *the rough, *the smooth, etc.

  • 4
    The Romans did not distinguish between nouns and adjectives, since their adjectives (like those of German and French, today) might freely be used as nouns. They distinguished substantive nouns, designating a 'substance' and adjective nouns, 'thrown up against' a substantive. I have read that the adjective was not recognized as a distinct POS until the 18th century. ... English adjectives may readily be used as nouns when they designate categories previously defined in the discourse. "We've got red caps and a green one, what do you want?" "The green's pretty shabby, gimme a red." Dec 4, 2013 at 20:44
  • @Stoned, interesting comment. I did not know that about the Romans and the grammar of Latin. In your example, my sense prefers to include "one": "The green one's pretty shabby". I wonder if we can view the ' in your example as standing in for "one i". Dec 5, 2013 at 22:52
  • You may paraphrase it as 'the green one', just as you may paraphrase it as 'the green cap'. But you are not obliged to paraphrase it. What's always permissible in French or German (and probably other European languages) is permitted only under limited circumstances in English, so when you stop and think about you feel impelled to paraphrase it; but it's still an adjective functioning as a noun. Dec 5, 2013 at 23:01
  • I believe this is very widespread among languages where adjectives are noun-like. (Most languages have adjectives which are either noun-like or verb-like.) Dec 6, 2013 at 2:35
  • Donatus included participles in his list of partes orationis, but treated words we consider adjectives as nouns. "partes orationis quot sunt? octo. quae? nomen pronomen uerbum aduerbium participium coniunctio praepositio interiectio."
    – jlawler
    May 8, 2016 at 0:31

I've gotten around the problem of inventing a new term (and kind of word) as follows.

The issue of adjectives (or articles, for that matter) functioning alone as complete noun phrases came up in the context of a computational dependency grammar for German. Canonical dependency grammar takes the noun to be the governor of the noun phrase, and the adjective to depend on it:

["don't give up" ["youth" ["the"] ["headstrong"]] ["easily"]] 

if you will.

In German, much inflection is carried by the adjective, even more when it comes alone ("strong" inflectional paradigm as opposed to "weak" paradigm when an article is present). This, in connection with the fact that adjectives precede nouns in German, lead me to the idea that the adjective (and the article) "project" a noun to follow. If the noun does not show up, an empty "shell" (lexically empty noun) is left in the syntax tree.

If this analysis can be applied to English as well, you don't need a special Adj/N class, since (a subclass of) adjectives just simply do project nouns. Well, maybe you need a name for this subclass of adjectives which do that. German adjectives do that across the board.


I'm not really sure this phenomenon has a coined term. In syntax, based on distributional criteria, all words have the possibility of functioning as a different category than the most frequently used one.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.