Is the word "U.S." an adjective or a noun modifier in this case? It seems to me that it is an adjective that goes before citizen, because we say "Russian citizen", "Chinese citizen", etc. But if it's a noun modifier, then why can't "China" be a noun modifier, too? Although "China citizen" sounds wrong to me, "(People's) Republic of China citizen" doesn't sound as bad. I know I could always write "citizen of China" and in general, "citizen of [country]", but I'm just curious to know.

  • A good teaser, this deserves some attention. – Mari-Lou A Sep 14 '14 at 8:50
  • This page is full of interesting questions and answers that may or may not relate directly to my question. I had a hard time choosing between Araucaria's and jlovegren's answers, but jlovegren definitely deserves to get the bounty for pointing out the jargon "blocking" and finding all these evidence. I applaud you guys' learning spirits, not being satisfied with a vague but OK answer. @Mari-LouA Thank you for bringing the attention that this question needs. – Gao Sep 30 '14 at 16:42
  • I'm so pleased you came back to accept the answer which helped you the most. I'm also relieved that you agree with my giving the bounty to @jlovegren, it was not easy choosing. – Mari-Lou A Sep 30 '14 at 17:01
  • You can definitely say Chinaman – Alex Dec 22 '16 at 19:58
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Adjectives are the prototypical modifiers of Noun Phrases. Generally speaking we kind of need a specific reason to use a Noun to modify another Noun when an adjective is available. There are many such reasons, but a common one is when there is simply no adjectival alternative - in other words when it simply doesn't exist. Because there is no reason not to use the adjective Chinese when modifying nouns, we do! We should note that by and large there's no difference between modifying the Noun citizen or any other Noun used in formal English:

  • Chinese citizens, officials, economics, food regulations

When the name of the country is a Noun which has no readily accepted Adjective as a counterpart, then, as Jlovegren says, we use that Noun as a Modifier in the Noun Phrase when we need to modify another Noun:

  • the Myanmar people
  • Benin culture

When it comes to countries whose names are already compounds, then it depends on the head word in the Noun Phrase that constitutes the name. If that head word has no Adjective counterpart we will use the name as a Noun modifier. In the United Arab Emirates for example, Emirates is the head Noun in the Noun Phrase. We have no Adjective for Emirates (Emiratian or anything like that), so we have to use the whole name as a Noun modifier. The same goes for the United States. There is no Adjective for States. So we have:

  • United States citizens
  • the United Arab Emirates economy

This can be contrasted with, for example South Korea. Korea is the head of the Noun Phrase here. We have an adjective relating to Korea, namely Korean, so the following is perfectly fine:

  • the South Korean food industry

Similarly we have an adjective corresponding to Britain in Great Britain, so we can talk, for example, of:

  • the (Great) British public

Other examples are:

  • the Saint Lucian president, the South African Government, the Saudi Arabian peninsula

... and so forth.

This won't work of course if the head noun is just a generic word like Republic. In fact it won't work if there is any phrasal genitive, X of Y construction such as we often find with Republic. Consider:

  • a United States of American citizen (wrong)
  • a People's Republic of Chinese statesman (wrong)
  • a Dominican Republican citizen (wrong)

Instead, when such compounds are used we find:

  • United States of America citizens
  • Republic of China citizens
  • Dominican Republic citizens

Very often we have more than one name for a country. Often one is longer and more formal than the other. If there is an adjective for the shorter name we will use that as a modifier accordingly:

  • Vatican officials

However if we use the compound name, then as described above it will depend on the head Noun in the Noun Phrase. So in instances where the head Noun has no adjectival counterpart we will find examples such as:

  • Vatican City State officials

Similarly, countries primarily known by their abbreviations will also have the abbreviations used as modifiers in Noun Phrases, because there are no adjectives (or at least well-known ones) relating to the names of letters! So we have the British government, but also:

  • the UK, US, and UEA governments

This goes for abbreviations in general, so we commonly find phrases like:

  • WWF supporters, IBM contractors, FIFA officials, IMF spokesmen

Hope this is helpful!

  • I find your answer to be the most coherent, comprehensive and helpful because of the numerous examples you give. You have addressed the counterexample (South Korean citizen) raised by @200_success as well as cleared my doubt of whether a "Republic of China citizen" is acceptable. – Gao Sep 30 '14 at 16:29
  • @GaoWeiwei I'm very happy that you found my answer useful, thank you! – Araucaria Sep 30 '14 at 18:26
up vote 16 down vote

Why can't you say China citizen?

Because you can already say "Chinese citizen". The phenomenon is called "blocking" in linguistics. You don't say something because there's already something else that you do say. For example, you you don't say "gloriosity" ( < glorious) because you can already say glory, even though by analogy with viscous>viscosity, you would think it's a reasonable thing to say.

By analogy with U.S. citizen, you think you can say China citizen, but Chinese citizen blocks it. U.S. citizen is different either because it predates American citizen or it means something different. e.g., it's shorthand for the legal term "citizen of the United States" (see below).

Also, United States doesn't have a corresponding preposed adjectival demonym, but China does. My hypothesis is that countries where there is no such form, or you don't know it, you treat like "US citizen": Vanuatu citizen, UAE citizen, Papua New Guinea citizen. English speakers, do these sound better than "China citizen"?

If you know the preoposed adjectival form, then it blocks the N-N compound: Czech, Russian, Soviet, etc.

Why can "U.S." act to modify a following noun?

Another guess: it comes from journalism. There are newspaper headlines with phrases like "U.S. troops", "Boston man", "Philadelphia lawyer", etc. which were used in newspaper headlines, then in radio broadcasts, then in television broadcasts.

But English can productively form N-N compounds, so when someone says "U.S. citizen", a native speaker can make a good guess about what it means, even if he/she hasn't heard it before. E.g., a freshly-coined, highly embedded series of N-N compounds such as dog food factory management regulations will be understood by most English speakers.

And U.S. citizen itself...

I think this is shorthand for "Citizen of the United States" invented by U.S. lawmakers. The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution refers to "Citizens of the United States". The U.S. Code (1918 U.S. Compiled Statutes) gives the following definition for U.S. Citizens as of 1918:

All persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are declared to be citizens of the United States. (25 USC 3946)

The phrase "citizen of the United States" is used throughout the title on citizenship. e.g.,

Whenever any of the chiefs, warriors, or heads of families of the tribes mentioned in section twenty three hundred and ten, having filed with the clerk of the district court of the United States a declaration of his intention to become a citizen of the United States, and to dissolve all relations with any Indian tribe, two years previous thereto... (25 USC 3950)

This phrase still appears in the modern-day editions of the U.S. Code: i.e.,

The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth... (8 USC 1401)

But the wording "United States Citizen" can also be found in modern editions:

...a single offsense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marihuana, who (A) is the spouse or child, of a United States citizen, or of an alien lawfully admitted... 8 USC 1182 (1976 ed.)

...and has in writing irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption; who has been adopted abroad by a United States citizen and spouse jointly... 8 USC 1101 (2000 ed.)

as well as earlier versions:

That it shall be the duty of immigration officials to record the following information...Name, age, and sex; ... whether able to read or write; nationality; country of birth; country of which citizen or subject; race; last permanent residence in the United States; intended future permanent residence; and time and port of last arrival in the United States; and if a United States citizen, whether native born or naturalized. (32 Barnes' Federal Code 3711 ; 1919)

Interestingly, the same passage of the 1919 version of the code (sec. 3664) uses the phrase "Chinese subject" rather than Chinese citizen:

The provisions of this act shall apply to all subjects of China and Chinese, whether subjects of China or any other foreign power; and the words Chinese laborers, wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.

What about "American Citizen"? This word made its way into Title 25 due to a law passed March 2, 1907 (34 Stat. 1229), which uses both terms with no apparent distinction in meaning:

Chap. 2534, Sec. 2: "That any American citizen shall be deemed to have expatriated himself when he has been naturalized in any foreign state…"

  • Could you please provide references/sources that back up your hypothesis. – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '14 at 16:25
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    I think this is true. However, in Britain* newspapers—at least on their websites—, one often reads such horrible things as China president. Fortunately, this is still less common in America newspapers. Style guides obviously baulk at this; most advise us to use noun adjectives sparingly if there is an alternative, such as an adjective or a prepositional phrase, like of China. // *) No, I did not mean to put a comma's Britain newspapers. – Cerberus Sep 20 '14 at 16:58
  • A citizen of China sounds more than OK to me, so why can't we say China citizen? A citizen of France, idem a France citizen? France and the US are strong allies, however insular the States may be, I'm sure they mention France in the news. The OP's question asks "Why can't we say China citizen /or do we?" – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 5:16
  • @Mari-LouA it's called "blocking" in linguistics. You don't say something because there's already something else that you do say. You don't say *gloriosity (<glorious) because you can already say glory, even though by analogy with viscous>viscosity, you would think it's a reasonable thing to say. So by analogy with U.S. citizen, you think you can say China citizen, but Chinese citizen blocks it. U.S. citizen is different either because it predates American citizen or it means something different. e.g., it's shorthand for the legal term "citizen of the united states". – jlovegren Sep 22 '14 at 23:00
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    @Mari-LouA United States doesn't have a corresponding preposed adjectival form. So here's a third theory: the countries where there is no such form, or you don't know it, you treat like "US citizen": Vanuatu citizen, UAE citizen, Papua New Guinea citizen. If you know the preoposed adjectival form, then it blocks the N-N compound: Czech, Russian, Soviet, etc. Just a thought! In your shoes I'd wait for a better organized answer to come along for your bounty ;-) – jlovegren Sep 23 '14 at 2:18

This is very good question. We do in fact say “a United States citizen”, “a UK national”, “the PRC government”, but we do not say *an America citizen, *a Britain national, *the China government. There seems to be an unwritten law that says you can form compounds from multi-word country names (or from abbreviations of the same), but not from single-word country names.

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    I wouldn’t call United States citizen or US citizen compounds (they retain individual stress); so I’d state the unwritten rule as being that multi-word country names and their abbreviations act as noun adjuncts, but single-word country names do not. Or possibly more precisely: multi-word country names that have no directly associated demonymic adjective get used as noun adjuncts, since there is no adjective to neatly step in. American and British are corresponding adjectives, but they’re not completely equivalent to the names of the countries. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 '14 at 10:36
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    Yes, in some collocations, noun adjuncts are used even with single-name countries; but *Vietnam citizen still doesn’t work, though I don’t think I’d really balk at the Vietnam government. Perhaps Vietnam is a bit of a special case, retaining still (in this particular regard) a vestige of its original multi-word-namedness, also reflected in the abbreviation Nam, and is therefore a bit more in flux than most other countries. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 '14 at 11:19
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    But also the Korean War, the Norman Invasion, the Spanish Civil War, the Trojan War, the Persian Wars, etc. Most (all?) cases that I can think of that use noun adjuncts are with names that have no readily available adjective (Gulfian? Normandic? I don’t even know what the adjectives for those two would be), or Vietnam. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 '14 at 11:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - There's a big difference to me between the Norman invasion and the Normandy invasion. The first happened in 1066, the latter, in 1944. – David Hammen Sep 14 '14 at 14:37
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    @DavidHammen Yes, exactly. Those two actually make a good case, since they are essentially a corresponding noun–adjective pair where neither is used for the other, if that makes sense. What I mean is that Normandy and Norman refer to the same place, as noun and adjective, but Norman is not used as the adjective form to (modern) Normandy, and Normandy is not really used as a noun form to (historical) Normans. So really, we have an adjective without a noun and a noun without an adjective—and unsurprisingly, they thus form different military nomenclature. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 '14 at 14:43

We can't say "China citizen", not simply because we already have "Chinese citizen", or simply because "China" is not a multi-word country name (or the abbreviation thereof). In order to better understand the real reason for this, let's take a look at these examples:

(1) He is a U.S. citizen. (= He is a United States citizen.)

(2) *He is a China citizen.

In (1), which is grammatical, the abbreviation "U.S." or the words "United States" is not a full-fledged noun phrase but some sort of modifier of "citizen". Note that it lacks the definite article "the", which will always be required when it's used as a noun phrase, as in "He is a citizen of the U.S." or "He is a citizen of the United States."

Therefore, it can be inferred that the word "U.S." or "United States" in (1) is somehow deprived of the definite article, i.e., its definiteness, to be able to function as a modifier of "citizen". In other words, there might be some unwritten rule--or a rule I don't know of--that a noun or a noun phrase must not be definite in order to act as a modifier of another noun.

Unlike "U.S." or "United States", on the other hand, the word "China" is a proper noun and thus inherently carries definiteness. So a proper noun such as "China" cannot act as a modifier of "citizen" as shown in ungrammatical (2).

The same obtains with other proper nouns as in:

*He is an America citizen.

*He is a Korea citizen.

*He is a Japan citizen.

  • An interesting and original explanation. I quite like it but I would like to hear what others think. – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '14 at 6:14
  • "An United Arab Emirates citizen" OR "UAE citizen". Would you find either form acceptable? – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '14 at 6:18
  • @Mari-LouA Neither. Though grammatically incorrect, it would be colloquially pronounced with a schwa, "Uh (A) United Arab Emirates citizen" and is missing an apostrophe. OR, "A citizen of the UAE". For some reason, the words 'Emirates' and 'States' are never ablative. – Mazura Sep 25 '14 at 1:15
  • @JK2 Mari-Lou That argument's perhaps a bit circular. Surely the modifier doesn't have an article because modifiers don't take articles, otherwise we would get a doubling up of articles in NPs The the United States Government etc etc - although I liked the idea when I first read it... Maybe there is something in it, not sure ... – Araucaria Sep 26 '14 at 12:55

The name of the country is the United States of America. So the adjective would be American. But American is ambiguous as it can refer to the whole double continent and an American may be from South, Central or North America. That's why one uses U.S. as a substitute to avoid ambiguity. This problem concerns mainly the USA.

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    Hispanophones of the various nations of the Americas resent the arrogation of the term "American" by U.S. citizens describing themselves, because they view the term as descriptive of all who inhabit the Americas. In Spanish there is a special word to describe someone from the U.S.: "estadounidense." I think they have a point. – Senex Ægypti Parvi Sep 14 '14 at 17:13
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    @SenexÆgyptiParvi well, perhaps they should adopt "of America" in their name or advocate USA to drop the "of America" part. While it is true that you don't hear a Chinese refer to themselves as "Asian", USA is a special case where the name of the nation actually contains "America", so "American" is a correct term. Either that or everyone should start dealing with "United States of American Company" – Raestloz Sep 15 '14 at 3:12
  • You make a good point. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 7:50
  • I believe the correct term is "central America". You might have been downvoted for this, or because you didn't attempt to answer the OP's question. You explained why saying "US citizen" is useful, but not why "China citizen" is considered incorrect. – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '14 at 6:34
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    When you hear someone being referenced as an "American" do you wonder which America the speaker means? I doubt it. You would almost certainly think of a citizen of the United States. – Robusto Sep 24 '14 at 20:26

We do say "Chinese citizen". So this is really a question about why "United States" can be used as an adjective.

My best guess is that it's a historical accident, evolving from "United States' citizen" where the trailing apostrophe indicates that it's intended as a possessive. Over time that may have been miswritten as "United States citizen", and that may have been common enough to become an accepted alternative.

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    If you find evidence to support this theory, that would be great. Thank you. – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '14 at 21:45
  • If "United States' citizen" was ever written with an apostrophe I'm sure if you trawled through Google Books you'd find a few instances. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 5:11

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