My friend and I have recently engaged in a little argument. It came about when he used the word "suaveness" and I argued that it wasn't a word. While I will concede he was right in this example, he made the claim that he could put "-ness" on the end of any adjective.

I do not believe this to be true.

Words like "fastestness" or "sleepingness" don't sit well with me. Are these words? If they are, are there any examples that don't work?

I also brought up "polyesterness" as an example, but he won't concede that "polyester" could be considered an adjective.

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    No. Suffixes like -ness, -dom, -hood, -ship, etc, which form nouns, are Derivational affixes, and derivational affixes do not normally apply to entire word classes like "adjective". Rather, there is a special list of words which require each one, and you have to learn them individually, like prepositions after verbs. It's the Inflectional affixes that apply to entire word classes, but the only English inflectional affixes that apply to adjectives are comparative and superlative. – John Lawler Oct 25 '13 at 17:22
  • You are cheating, of course. Fastest is a superlative, and sleeping is a present participle. So of course fastestness and sleepingness don't sit with you anywhere as well as fastness and sleepiness would. That being said, of course fastestness and sleepingness are words. What else are they? – RegDwigнt Oct 25 '13 at 17:23
  • -ness can only productively be added to non-inflected forms of true adjectives. ‘Fastest’ is the superlative, so adding -ness does not really work (‘fastness’ does, though); and ‘sleeping’ is a participle, not a true adjective. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 25 '13 at 17:25
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    @RegDwigнt "What else are they". I'm not sure if I can accept that line of reasoning. They could be nonsense. I could use the same line of reasoning and say: "of course 'feawfeaw' is a word. What else is it?" – Cruncher Oct 25 '13 at 17:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Are superlatives considered adjectives or no? – Cruncher Oct 25 '13 at 17:28

A quick search for -ness words on onelook.com (a portal to numerous online dictionaries) generates a list of 100 examples just between abrasiveness and bitterness. I would guess there are several thousand.

However, these are not all the adjectives in English (well, I hope not). Some adjectives have their own noun forms that do not use -ness, for example, the noun form of indifferent is indifference, not indifferentness.

You also have to distinguish between different types of adjectives. Some are participles, verb forms that can be used like adjectives, as in your example sleeping. These are much less likely to be amenable to a -ness construction. In fact, the noun form for many participle adjectives is the gerund that has the same form as the participle, for example running. Similarly, as you suggest, the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives do not lend themselves to -ness formations.

Also some words used as adjectives are themselves nouns, such as car in car factory, or as you offer, polyester, a noun that can be used adjectivally.

In sum, you can form nouns by adding -ness to many, but not all adjectives.

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    Angriness is in use, so adding -ness doesn't seem to be blocked by the existence of angry. – snailplane Oct 25 '13 at 17:36
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    I've dredged up (?) manquéness as non-existent. Some of the following non-semantically-predicative adjectives might also not comply: next, last, previous, subsequent, preceding, further, utter, sheer, outright, main, chief, principal, mere, future, then, former, past, now? once? intermittent ... potential, budding – Edwin Ashworth Oct 25 '13 at 18:53
  • @snailboat Good point. I changed the example. – bib Oct 25 '13 at 19:01
  • I also think ness can be added to any adjective to form nouns. I have read it about this in word power made easy written by Norman Lewis. – Shahid Hussain Jul 7 '18 at 8:23

I would say -ness is a suffix that can be added to any adjective. The corresponding German suffix -nis can also be added to verbs or nouns, e.g. zeugen or Zeuge + nis gives Zeugnis.

Astonishingly, if read backwards, English -ness gives -sen. I think it is connected with German sein (to be) and the idea of illness would be "the ill-being (das Krank-Sein).

German zeugen means to testify or to bear testimony. So the idea of Zeugnis would be "something that is being testifying/being a witness" (Zeuge-Seiendes).

Marchand in his book about word-formation says: -ness forms nouns with the meaning "state, condition, quality of". Since Old English it has chiefly been tacked on to adjectives and participle adjectives, but in Modern English it is also used with various other bases, but not with verbs.

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  • At least three sub-classes of adjectives contain some members that are resistant (to say the least) to accepting the -ness postfix. I can find no dictionary entries accepting the following are-they-words-or-aren't-theys?: from Participial adjectives: admiredness, drippingness, friedness, neighbouringness, yawningness / Less prototypical adjectives: asleepness, mereness, manquéness, onceness, then / Classifying adjectives: biologicalness, chemicalness, nuclearness.... – Edwin Ashworth Jan 19 '15 at 9:28
  • Please excuse my use of the non-word 'are-they-words-or-aren't-theys?'; I'm sure it fulfils the 'can be readily understood by most anglophones' ('those strings some claim to be words but others reject as such') requirement, but not the 'widely enough used to be accepted as in the English lexicon' requirement many consider essential. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 19 '15 at 9:30

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