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Is the dictionary wrong? Here's an example; you decide (use the rules of grammar and common human natural-language sense, not the rules of logic, which rely entirely on antecedent definitions):

The United States, England and Canada have a lot in common. The former, for example, used to own the other two!

Former here seems to me to be a noun. But according to m-w.com and wiktionary.org, this can't be true because it is just an adjective! How can this be?

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closed as general reference by Jasper Loy, JLG, Matt Эллен, Mitch, Mahnax Aug 22 '12 at 5:20

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
thefreedictionary.com/former: noun -- the former: the first or first mentioned of two: distinguished from latter –  JLG May 22 '12 at 2:03
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Incidentally I think your example is wrong- The US did not ever own England. Also your question in the PS/EDIT section leads me to believe that you have your definitions reversed. -Remember the "latter" comes later in the list. Former is "BeFORe" the latter. –  Jim May 22 '12 at 2:34
    
the former is england in that case. –  boulder_ruby May 22 '12 at 3:35
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@David I think most people would read your example and assume that former referred to the US, not to England (as Jim and I both did). Though not authoritative, this wordreference.com thread also seems to agree. –  Cameron May 22 '12 at 3:43

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Former can indeed be used as a noun. Dictionaries are not wrong, just incomplete.

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And some are less complete than others. –  tchrist May 22 '12 at 6:06

The OED points out that former, although normally an adjective, can also be used absolutely or elliptically — and even inflected as a noun!

The former’s phlegm was a check upon the latter’s vivacity.

Sure smells awfully nouny to me. I’d say your dictionary is wrong.

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merriam webster has no such entry –  boulder_ruby May 22 '12 at 3:35
    
@David Not sure what point you might be making. –  tchrist May 22 '12 at 6:05
    
@tchrist Perhaps that a standard American reference doen't use it as a noun (in this sense), whereas a standard British reference does? But as you say, not all dictionaries are complete. –  Andrew Leach May 22 '12 at 6:49
    
@AndrewLeach I hardly consider the OED a British-national thing. It’s an English-language thing, and always has been. For some uninformed Americans to ignore it is just their own bad luck, and easily remedied. Pretending that MW and the OED serve the same purpose just for different countries requires serious dissembling. The OED was the standard reference we used at the last American university I was associated with; some people know quality scholarship irrespective of its purported pondian orientation. –  tchrist May 22 '12 at 18:29

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