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I was posed a question the other day:
"Can you think of a word that can be used as a Noun, Verb or an Adjective?"

One such word would be "light".

Is there a rule for identifying such words?

(See also: What word can fulfill the most parts of speech?)

Along a similar line, is there any rule (or name) for words that could be a Noun, Verb and Adjective (and other parts of speech) depending on the interpretation of a single sentence?

An example of the above that satisfies two out of three could be "This is a rubbish pile." i.e. Is it a pile of rubbish, or a poorly constructed pile?

(Whether [a version of] this question is on topic is discussed on meta, please close/edit if appropriate.)

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It's surprising how many words this is true for. I remember in school being asked to write sentences using certain words as a noun, verb and adjective in turn. The only word I actually remember was "swimming"- tricky to use it as an adjective. – Urbycoz Mar 16 '12 at 9:01
Arguably this is true for every word. English is flexible like that. Nothing prevents you from using "oops" as a noun, or "between" as a verb, etc. The only tricky class is adverbs, because you'd usually have to add a -ly to make it work. (And look! I have just used "-ly" as a noun. Most people wouldn't even call it a word, yet it works.) So if anything, we should be discussing the opposite thing: can you think of a word that cannot be used as a noun, verb, or adjective? Really, you should have asked just that right back, and watch them struggle. – RegDwigнt Mar 16 '12 at 14:56
@RegDwight: Absolutely - if we were talking about it for long enough, someone would probably mention ly-ing as the standard way of making adverbs (and if it weren't for the fact that English speakers already use lying to describe something else we all do anyway, we'd soon end up dispensing with the hyphen! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 15:08
@Urbycoz "We had a swimming time at the party last night." In American, at least, a "swimming time" means a "fun time". Similarly "we got along swimmingly" means "we got along very well". – Jay Mar 16 '12 at 18:23
@RedDwight True, but I think there's a difference between words that have conventional meanings in multiple parts of speech, and words that are rammed into it. Like, "We watched the LeMans car RACE" (noun) and "We watched the cars RACE at LeMans" (verb): conventional usage. But "Did you give that task to Karen?" "Yes, and I Karened this one, too." The speaker is inventing a new usage of "Karen" on the spot. Granted when enough people do this the usage becomes standard. Like is "googled" a "real" verb? Maybe not, but it's getting there. – Jay Mar 16 '12 at 18:29
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The class to which a word belongs can be identified not only by the word’s meaning, but also by its morphological and syntactic properties. A word is a noun if it can be inflected for plural number and genitive case and if it can occur as the head of a noun phrase. A word is a lexical verb if it has different forms for tense, aspect and voice and if it occurs as a single-word verb phrase or if it occurs in the final position of a verb phrase. A word is an adjective if it can take the inflectional endings -er and -est to show comparative and superlative forms and if it can occur as the head of an adjective phrase, typically modifying the head of a noun phrase, or as a predicative following a verb.

Ambiguities such as the one you illustrate in This is a rubbish pile can usually be resolved by reference to the linguistic and social context.

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Many words have multiple meanings. Look up 'set', 'stand' , or 'run'.

One part of meaning is the part of speech. 'I have to run to the store', 'I have a run in my stocking': 'run' means two different things in those sentences, also two different parts of speech (the meanings are obviously related).

There is no word specifically to describe a word that can be used as different parts of speech, bit one can use the more general term


to mean having multiple meanings.

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Most words in the English language have multiple definitions. Often, these definitions will cross over to different parts of speech.

Dictionaries will usually list these words just once, in a combined entry. But the phenomenon is so common (with two parts of speech, at least - though perhaps not three) that I'm not aware of any specific term for it.

(If there is such a term, it's likely to be an obscure word, so, if you were to drop that word into a document, you might want to parenthetically define it).

I did a little research on-line, to see if I could find a single word for such words, but came up empty-handed. However, I did find a few places that would have been a prime place to drop the term - if such a word existed - yet these websites chose to express the concept as follows:

  • A word can be more than one part of speech, and you must look at how the word works in a particular sentence to know what part of speech it is. The chart below shows examples of words that have more than one part of speech. – in eslus.com lesson pos10
  • This variation in tag sets is unavoidable, since parts-of-speech tags are used in different ways for different tasks. – Bird, Klein, and Loper, "Natural language processing with Python"
  • This will introduce students to an array of time-tested rhetorical devices, such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, word/phrase repetition, analogy, wordplay, anecdote, allusion, and dual parts of speech. – ydu.edu.tw Grammar & Rhetoric syllabus
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@jwpat7: #1 was from a ESL guideline, as you've already pointed out; #2 was from a technical paper on the topic language processing research, by Steven Bird, et.al. #3 was from a course syllabus, for a course entitled Grammar & Rhetoric. – J.R. Mar 16 '12 at 20:49

Technobabble is full of such examples.

FTP, google, install each can serve as nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

Granted each of these severely torture the language, but their usage is fairly common.

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