Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Can anyone remind me of the grammatical term for the apparent misapplication of an attributive adjective, as in the phrase "the naughty step" (where it is not the step itself that is naughty but the person consigned to it)?

share|improve this question
Like "the step where naughty kids sit"? –  Kit Z. Fox Feb 20 '13 at 13:43
Please rewrite the question so that it provides a context. "A "naughty step" should mean some sort of untoward act or behavior. I have no idea what is being asked here & I don't like having to infer questions, because then they're mine, & I don't need to ask myself questions just to answer them in public. Say what you mean & don't ask your readers to read your mind. If KitFox's comment is correct, then it's called metonymy or synecdoche: you decide. –  user21497 Feb 20 '13 at 13:49
@BillFranke the naughty step -- it comes from a habit of making a child sit on a particular stair until they come to reason. –  Andrew Leach Feb 20 '13 at 14:31
@Andrew: Thank you for the clarification. That's what I inferred. It makes sense in KitFox's phrase. –  user21497 Feb 20 '13 at 14:50
@AndrewLeach though the ideal is that it doesn't turn out to be habit-forming. –  Jon Hanna Feb 20 '13 at 14:50

3 Answers 3

Firstly the concept of intersectiveness should be considered:

From RE at Yahoo Answers [tidied]:

Intersective: Phrases like [blue suit] are easy to understand because we can intersect the set of blue things with the set of suits and get the set of blue suits. Such adjectives are called intersective adjectives.

Relative Intersection: Some adjectives, like [big] in [big mosquito] work differently. In this case, what we mean is "big for an X", in this case, "big for a mosquito". A big elephant and a big mouse are two very different senses of "big", unless we understand "big" as an adjective whose meaning is relativized to the noun or noun phrase that it's modifying. This is called relative intersection, and "big" is an adjective of relative intersection. Other examples are tall, good, short, poor, rich. This is a very typical kind of adjective.

[See Ling 107 Semantics - The Study of Word and Sentence Meaning]

Non-intersection: Non-intersective adjectives are adjectives that don't entail reference to the objects denoted by the noun. This is the case of adjectives like alleged and possible. If we say "The alleged thief arrived in court," we do not need to be talking about a thief. Likewise, if you are a possible candidate, that does not entail that you are a candidate. Being an alleged thief does not entail being a thief. By contrast, being a red wine does entail being a wine, and being a big mouse, does entail being a mouse.

Example: 'suspected' and 'possible' are non-intersective, because suspects don't necessarily intersect with the set of all perpetrators of the act that someone is suspected of committing, and possibilities don't necessarily become certainties.

(Question: why doesn't being a "big shot" entail being a "shot"? Answer: (which you should know) [big shot] is an idiomatic expression. It's not transparently compositional. It has a meaning that is different from combined meanings of its parts.)

Anti-intersection: [Anti]-intersective adjectives are adjectives that can't entail reference to the objects denoted by the noun and which in fact entail non-reference to the noun in question. This is best understood if we think about the phrase [a fake Picasso]. The semantics of [fake] are such that the phrase [a fake Picasso] can never refer to a real painting by Picasso. Such adjectives are called anti-intersective adjectives.

So 'naughty step' is an example of anti-intersection.

Another way to look at this is to consider that 'naughty step' has been used as a shortened equivalent of 'the step on which naughty pupils are condemned to sit'. The adjective is thus known as a transposed epithet.

The other way to refer to the peripheral adjective (it does not truly modify the noun it attaches to, ie refers to something other than the noun's referent) is as a non semantically-predicative adjective. Though there is an argument that it's no longer a true adjective ('a mere youth' = 'someone who is merely a youth' = 'a member of that group of not-yet-adults characterised by immaturity, both physical, intellectual ...).

share|improve this answer

It's a form of anthimeria, conversion or functional shift, though in this case it's a double case:

  1. First the adjective naughty is used to form a noun, meaning those who are naughty.

  2. Then this noun is used to modify a noun, much as an adjective would be, meaning something whose purpose is dealing with those who are naughty.

I can't think of any term specifically for an anthimeria that results in the same form, and since adjective → noun conversions are common enough in English, and noun → adjective so common as to barely count as conversions at all, even the double form doesn't strike me as that remarkable, compared to other cases.

There are two interesting features though. The first is that we can see it is being treated more like a noun-adjunct than an adjective by trying to use it predicatively:

Go and sit on the naughty step!

*Go and sit on the step that is naughty!

This also changes adjective order:

The wooden naughty step.

*The naughty wooden step.

We generally put judgements before material, and material before qualifiers or modifying nouns, so the former makes sense, but the latter suggests we are using naughty in its more common adjectival meaning, and the wooden step needs a spanking.

share|improve this answer
Sometimes I come to english.stackexchange just to read something like this... –  fgysin Feb 20 '13 at 14:55
That's a very informative response -- does the same apply for a construction such as a "lazy chair" where the chair is one in which to be lazy? –  Questioner Feb 20 '13 at 15:08
That example would be pretty much a spot on comparison with this. The one difference is that it assists laziness, rather than attempts to amend it, so the relationship between the two words is different to that extent, but that's well within the range of the different ways we'd modify one word with another. –  Jon Hanna Feb 20 '13 at 15:22
Homeless shelters, baby food, girlscout cookies Girl Scout: “I only like all-natural foods and beverages, organically grown, . . . .” Wednesday: “Are they made from real Girl Scouts?” –  tchrist Feb 21 '13 at 13:25
metaphor: "1. a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly: figurative language" & "1. use of a word or expression in a different sense from that which properly belongs to it for giving life or emphasis to an idea; also: an instance of such use: FIGURE OF SPEECH". Metonymy. Metaphor adorns reality. –  user21497 Feb 23 '13 at 0:13

I don't know a single "technical term" for exactly this, but it looks like a "two-stage" process:

1: Adjectival naughty is treated as an adjectival noun:
an Adjective can sometimes function as a Noun; the young, the rich, etc. (the naughty [ones], here).

2: That "intermediate" noun form is then treated as a noun adjunct:
an optional noun that modifies another noun.

In short, it doesn't seem strictly correct to describe the process as "misapplication of an attributive adjective", because the original adjectival sense of "naughty" has already been supplanted by the derived noun sense before recycling as an adjective with somewhat different applicability.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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