An adjective appears to be used as a noun when denoting an animate plural and preceded by the definite article:

'The successful are those who strive.'

'The foolish are those who procrastinate.'

Is this always the case?

3 Answers 3


Yep. Because there is always an assumed "people" attached. So long as it's an adjective that can reasonably be used to describe people, you should never run into an issue.

If you ever feel uncomfortable with your construction, just substitute "X people" for your "the X" and see if your sentence still works grammatically.

  • Basically agree, though the assumed noun isn't necessarily "people". Like if you were talking about cars and then said, "The fast are expensive and dangerous", I think we'd understand you to mean fast cars, not fast people.
    – Jay
    Jan 31, 2012 at 23:02
  • @Jay Even in that scenario, to me "the fast" means fast people, never cars.
    – mic
    Apr 24, 2018 at 21:23
  • 1
    Here's an exception to the "the X" = "X people" rule, from the Wikipedia page on nominalized adjectives: "Another case is when an adjective is used to denote a single object with the property, as in "you take the long route, and I'll take the short". Here the short stands for "the short route". A much more common alternative in the modern language is the structure using the prop-word one: "the short one"."
    – mic
    Apr 24, 2018 at 21:26
  • @mici Lots of examples. "Their chocolate ice cream is very good, but the vanilla is exceptional." Obviously I mean vanilla ice cream and not vanilla people. "There were three brown horses in the pasture, two whites and a roan." Etc.
    – Jay
    Apr 25, 2018 at 1:03

No, you cannot always assume that. For instance, adjectives ending with -y or -ish usually cannot be pluralized and used as nouns. The adjective 'watery' cannot be turned into 'wateries'. These exceptions are probably because the adjective is already created from a noun and most of these cannot be further altered and turned back into a noun.

  • 1
    ...Just to point it out, the example sentences don't say "the successfuls..." or "the foolishes..." They just say "the successful" and "the foolish." The adjective itself isn't made plural, it's just understood to be plural...So, you could say "the watery..." I'm not sure why anyone would, but they could.
    – kitukwfyer
    Mar 26, 2011 at 16:22
  • Very late follow-up: Whether you would really use it depends on context. "The diver plunged into the watery"? Not likely, you'd just say "... into the water." The only plausible example I can think of would be when the associated noun was used earlier in the same context, like, "The thick soup is hard to swallow, and the watery doesn't fill you at all."
    – Jay
    Jan 31, 2012 at 23:00

In 'The successful are those who strive' successful is not being used as a noun. It is a nominal adjective as in 'the meek shall inherit the earth'. Its meaning is 'all those who are successful'. Another way to view this is that the noun has been elided, as in 'I like the hopeless cat, he likes the sucessful'.

That being the case, if 'the [X]' means 'all that are [x]', it has to behave as a plural count noun or a mass noun.

  • Thanks Mari-Lou A ... I was seriously annoyed by that 'edit'. Deleting all but one sentence is not an edit - and the excuse that this is not forum for media reviews. Geez.. I am not sure wether to raise it in Meta, say something in comments, or do nothing. BTW... I admire your tact in commenting here. I wouldn't have thought of that. Nov 14, 2014 at 3:41
  • Refering to one that says it was left 49 minutes ago? The edit to mine had two apporvals and one dissaproval, but going to Meta would at least spotlight the issue. Nov 14, 2014 at 3:51
  • She has downvoted some of my comments too. Nov 15, 2014 at 2:06
  • You are beating me then... I have got four more random down votes in the past few hours. Whatever the gender, Lightness lacks the maturity to handle criticism. Nov 15, 2014 at 4:38
  • 'Being used as a noun' is ill-defined. Contrast 'I am using this notebook as a diary' (ie it is my diary) with 'I am using this notebook as a coaster' (ie as if it were a coaster). I think that received wisdom is to class nominal adjectives as adjectives used in distributions normally associated with nouns, though I expect some authorities prefer a gradience model. Mar 6, 2015 at 9:04

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