• What size shirt are you wearing?
    • I'm wearing a large.

In this instance, large is a noun used in place of the understood [large] shirt. I'm trying to figure out if there is a word for "a descriptor or property of a noun used in place of a noun" much like synecdoche describes a part used as a whole or vice versa.

I've found metonymy and antonomasia, but neither seem to fit what I'm looking for.

  • 1
    This can be considered a substantive adjective, although this merely describes an adjective used as a noun, not necessarily an adjective standing alone with the noun being implied. – Anonym Jan 4 '15 at 4:52
  • In the UK, we usually speak of 'a mobile', omitting the phone. It's just a simple deletion, but plays havoc with POS analysis. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 4 '15 at 12:44

To be honest, I think your example does not qualify as either synecdoche or metonymy. In the answer to the question, you've simply elided the word shirt (or size) and said simply "large." The following example does pretty much the same thing:

Question: "What size slurpee do you usually get?" Answer: "A thirty-two ouncer." Here, "thirty-two ouncer" is simply another way of answering "What size?", as opposed to answering "large," "medium, " "small," or "super-size," and eliding the word slurpee in the process.

According to Dr. Robert A. Harris, many rhetoricians have kind of given up on distinguishing between synecdoche and metonymy; that's how closely these two figures of speech have been identified with one another in recent years. By the way, for a good list of some of the more common rhetorical devices called tropes and figures (of speech), go to the Dr. Harris cite I've provided a link to.

What trope, then (if any), is contained in your example? I suggest it's not a trope at all, but simply shorthand, as it were, or an instance of "economy of expression." As for metonymy and synecdoche, they are tropes, and there are differences and similarities (albeit subtle at times) between the two. What are those similarities and differences, you ask? I'm glad you asked!


Think of metonymy as a trope in which a physical, tangible, seeable, touchable, smellable object takes the place of, say, another entity to which it is related somehow. Here are some examples accompanied by brief explanations:

  • "Count noses, Lieutenant." Noses takes the place of a group of soldiers. Obviously, soldiers have more body parts than just noses, but generally speaking every soldier has but one nose; therefore, when you count noses, the number of soldiers and the number of noses should match! (Perhaps my attempt at humor will cement this trope into your, uh, bean--a metaphor for brain.)

  • "How many hands do we have working on the farm today?" said the farmer to his ramrod (i.e., his foreman). Same explanation as above.

  • "The crown has handed down her decision to the commoners." The crown is a tangible object related to the monarchy, whether a king or queen. Here's where metonymy and synecdoche become conflated. A crown is part of a whole; it's a part of the whole notion of a monarch and his or her monarchy. However, it's only a physical, tangible part. Keep that in mind.

  • "You can't fight city hall." Here, the building we refer to as city hall is a tangible object, an edifice, which takes the place of the whole of city governance, and the people and protocols associated with that aspect of public service. To fight "city hall" you would likely need to enter the actual building at some point to file papers, to meet with an official, and the like. In other words, you'd have to interact with the system either in person and/or long distance, as with email and/or snail mail.

  • "I swear on my mother's grave." The grave substitutes not only for the dearly departed mother, but also for the sacredness of motherhood.


Synecdoche also concerns a part for a whole or a whole for a part, but with this trope, the substitution, one for the other, isn't concerned so much with physical, tangible substitutes, but with spiritual, intangible, metaphorical and symbolic concepts. Sometimes the metaphor which substitutes for the part or the whole may be related to a tangible thing, but only metaphorically. Some examples and explanations:

  • "My materialistic son needs to learn that life is more than big-screen TVs and BMWs." Here, the tangible objects, TVs and cars, comprise a part for the whole. The whole, of course, is the concept of a materialistic lifestyle. For people other than this person's son, the part-for-whole could be houses, jewelry, fame, degrees, a bulging portfolio, wads of cash, or virtually any thing.

  • "When I was pulled over for speeding, I saw in my rearview mirror the law walking up behind my car with a small book in his hand. He was writing." Here, the word law is the whole to the part, which is one police officer. Yes, the officer is tangible, but s/he represents the law, in part. S/he isn't a substitute for the law; s/he IS the law in part. You could also refer to the officer synecdochically as "Mr. Law and Order," or "Ms. Law and Order." Same trope.

  • "With the resurgence of interest in vinyl record albums, music lovers can't wait to put Mozart on the turntable and crank up the volume." Here, the "retro" vinyl record is the part to the whole of Mozart's entire corpus of compositions (e.g., symphonies, operas, concerti, sonatas, and so on). There is, of course, a tangible connection involved--in this case a vinyl (PVC) phonograph record, but that small part is related to a spiritual whole, which is Mozart's music. His music, from one perspective, is really just splotches of ink on paper with musical staves (i.e., sheet music), but spiritually it is the music of the gods!

  • "This welfare program is for the little old lady in Kankakee who can't afford to heat her Victorian mansion." Here, the little old lady is a part of a whole; namely, all the poor little old ladies and widows in all of Kansas (or all of the United States).

  • "The sheriff pulled out his peacemaker and shot the assassin square between the eyes." In this sentence the peacemaker is a somewhat ironic part to the whole; the whole being all those things and people who are peacemakers ("Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God"). A gun, of course, is a poor substitute for a true peacemaking effort, but in the days of the Wild West, that's what some people called guns: peacemakers. They certainly silenced breakers of the peace--permanently!

  • "The word out of Washington is that there are tough economic times ahead of us." Washington as it is used here is a whole to a part, the part being all the politicos, PACs, economists, lobbyists, senators, congressmen, and bureaucrats which comprise one aspect of life in Washington, D.C. By the same token, "The Fed" could be a whole to the part which consists of one Alan Greenspan, an economist and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, as in "Word from the Fed is that interest rates will remain low for at least a decade."


By now you can likely tell that the differences between the two tropes, synecdoche and metonymy, are sometimes subtle at best. The two concepts are indeed quite slippery, so I don't blame rhetoricians for treating the two tropes as synonyms. I see no harm in doing so, but personally I think there is at least a shade of difference between the two. Would I engage in vigorous debate to prove my point? Nah.

| improve this answer | |

The word anthimeria might describe the situation. It means changing a word from one part of speech to another, eg a noun to a verb. In your example the adjective 'large' is changed to a noun meaning a thing (in this case a shirt) that is large.

| improve this answer | |
  • I think the only thing that stops this being the perfect answer to this question is might, because I think this is definitely anthimeria. – Jon Hanna Jan 4 '15 at 23:40

Well, metalepsis is an extreme form of what you're talking about. It involves referring to something via something else that has a very remote association to it.

For example, the term cinch in the following sentence is an example of metalepsis.

He figured that Germany was a cinch to win the World Cup last year.

A cinch is a device used for securing a saddle on a horse. It is only through an elaborate metaphorical association that it has come to mean something so secure that it is guaranteed.

| improve this answer | |
  • Fun answer, whether or not it's what Efrog was looking for. – idunno Jan 4 '15 at 1:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.