Is the the word "foul" in the saying "cry foul" a noun, an adjective or an adverb? I had a disagreement with my teacher, where I think it's a noun.

As in screaming "Foul!", saying that the action is a foul. Now that I think of it, screaming "Foul!" could also mean that the action was foul.

So is it possible to determine which is it? Or how is it used in say football?

I'm not a native english speaker.


8 Answers 8


As commented above, there is no real meaning in trying to determine what foul's "part of speech (POS)" is.

According to Urban Dictionary (which is deemed not very reliable though), "cry foul" came from a baseball term "foul ball".

Someone who strongly disagrees with another person's fair opinion/criticism. It came from a baseball term, "foul ball".

Foul has a noun usage as follows:

(In sport) an unfair or invalid stroke or piece of play, especially one involving interference with an opponent:

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

Considering the fact that articles are omitted in idioms such as "cry wolf", "cry murder", etc. and "foul" has a noun usage, it would be more appropriate to determine it is a "noun".

  • 2
    It's may also be short for "cry foul play", which was around in the 19th century (whereas "cry foul ball" wasn't). Nov 21, 2015 at 17:08
  • @PeterShor I am not sure what "play" in the 19th century meant. A game or theater? The Ngram shows cry foul existed in the 19th century though.
    – user140086
    Nov 21, 2015 at 17:13
  • 1
    It meant both. But "cry foul play" seems to have been used for cheating in gambling, for not playing fair in fights, and for metaphorical extensions to life in general. Nov 21, 2015 at 17:21
  • @PeterShor Yes, I think that's what it meant. Foul seems to have been around for a very long time from Old English.
    – user140086
    Nov 21, 2015 at 17:25
  • For crying (foul) out loud. "Foul" is a word. Its part of speech is irrelevant. The properly punctuated expression is "Cry 'Foul!'", and the content of the inner quotes has no effect on the syntax of the overall sentence. It could as well be "Cry 'Glibnix!'", and the syntax would remain unchanged.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 29, 2016 at 13:31

I'm afraid I disagree with the other answers listed here. While it is true that when one were to "cry, 'foul'", in the act of doing so the phrase could conceivably be argued grammatically to be an interjection, that notwithstanding in the context of the original question it refers to the concept of one crying, "Foul play!" (which, AFAIK, is the original context in which the phrase was introduced into common vernacular). Strangely, I was unable to corroborate the etymological origins of the phrase in a brief search, but Google's Ngram Viewer suggests the phrase entered use circa 1820, 8 years prior to the introduction of the "foul ball" in baseball. "Foul play", on the other hand, has been used since at least 1636.

All of that aside, and regardless of the (debatable) interjectory nature of one crying, "Foul play!" the word "foul" is still an adjective describing the nature of the observed shenanigans. Moreover, I'd argue that "Foul play!" is not strictly an interjection (such as "Yikes!" or "Wow!") regardless of the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. An interjection conveys emotion and nothing else, whereas the statement in question conveys, "[I believe] foul play [is taking place]!" and the extraneous exposition is simply implicit.

TL;DR: the word "foul" in the context of the original statement is an adjective, defining the nature of the play being observed. The accepted answer above, suggesting that it is a noun, is certainly incorrect by any measure.

  • Could it be that "Foul play" shortened into "a foul" over time and then is used as "cry [a] wolf" -> "cry [a] foul", with "wolf" being a noun?
    – Varis
    Nov 21, 2015 at 20:33
  • Many of the 19th century hits for "cry foul" in Google Ngram are actually "cry foul play". See Ngram. Nov 21, 2015 at 21:05
  • I like this answer. It seems that as the phrase as been shortened with time, "foul" should still be considered an adjective, though perhaps now in the substantive form (i.e., an adjective that acts as a noun, like Americans or whites). This might be splitting hairs, but then, would you call fishing a noun or a verb? (Or be precise and call it a gerund?)
    – Chara
    Nov 22, 2015 at 1:45
  • As you can see in the above comments, I myself started to think it was an adjective first. But I changed my mind as there is a noun usage of the word "foul". I think it is just "tomayto-tomahto" issue. There could be no incorrect answer. If you look at all those 4 answers posted, all of them have a valid point including yours (+1).
    – user140086
    Nov 22, 2015 at 6:16
  • Foul is a noun in the Laws of the Game of association football, especially Law 12. So crying "Foul!" can be using an adjective or noun (or perhaps as an imperative verb, inciting cheating),
    – Henry
    Nov 22, 2015 at 15:17

The answers given do not explicitly state that (most don't even acknowledge that), in spite of the obvious literal origin of the expression, cry foul is now a verbo-nominal idiom in its own right.

ODO gives

Definition of cry foul in English:

Protest strongly about a real or imagined wrong or injustice: deprived of the crushing victory it was confidently expecting, the party cried foul

The direct speech interpretation

The fans all cried "Foul!"

needs the quotation marks to disambiguate (although in other cases, there is an acceptance of intermediate structures, omitting quotation marks where they would once have been regarded as mandatory. 'He wished them Merry Christmas.') This is therefore not indicated in OP; '... the saying "cry foul" ' confirms this. [bolding mine]

Although the fact that 'cry foul' is a verbo-nominal structure, analysing it as [V + N] is arguably unprofitable. Such idioms (eg weigh anchor, take care, break cover, make waves, curry favour, do time, down tools) often resist passivisation (*anchor was weighed) and don't accept pronominalisation (*He broke cover; he broke it before the dogs reached him.) The verby part and the nouny part (I'm avoiding the more precise attributives) are too cohesive in these expressions for one or both. I'd say 'cry foul' is a single lexeme, roughly equal to 'remonstrate'.

  • Even so, it isn't just "foul" that is the noun here... it's the phrase, "Foul [play]!" It doesn't resist passivisation if you include the implicit text: "Foul [play] was cried!" Despite the lattermost word being implied, I believe the context and grammar of the word, "foul", remains the same.
    – Crates
    Nov 23, 2015 at 15:44
  • Unlike the other verbonominals I give, the complication here is that "They cried 'Foul [play]!' ", the quotative structure, exists as well as the idiom "They cried foul play." Think of the comparison "He pleaded the Fifth"; there are negligible Google hits for "the Fifth was pleaded/pled". Or again, "She spoke her mind." Nov 23, 2015 at 16:42

tl;dr: it's part of a stretched verb ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stretched_verb ) and acts as a noun.

I think most of the answers given have a correct part in it, but none cover the full picture. Language is not a static thing, but it is evolving. There are several attempts in the answers showing where this phrase derived from. But that doesn't mean, that the syntactic role of the word must be the same as where it came from.

The line of thinking presented is: to cry "there is foul play at hand" -> to cry "foul play" -> to cry "foul" -> to cry foul

The thing is, when people start using a word differently, the role of the word changes.

You can read more about it in Stretched Verb Constructions ( https://books.google.de/books?id=YwiiSmvwv9IC )

P.S.: Yes, English is a highly creative language when it comes to anything, syntax not excluded.

edit: think about other extreme examples like: "to go bananas" - it is not about bananas. similar concepts to stretched verbs are serial verbs: "come live with me" and phrasal verbs "to look after".

  • it means: "too long; didn't read" - indicating that the following sentence is a summary of what I posted in a longer way :)
    – tuexss
    Nov 22, 2015 at 13:35
  • We could argue for years about whether it is or not. There is no "right" or "wrong" position on this. All we can do is observe how it is used. For me this is a stretched verb by now and I use it as such. Others may be on another standpoint and use it as in: to cry 'fowl'. Every speaker of the english creates his own version of English and this why languages are alive and changing permanently :)
    – tuexss
    Nov 22, 2015 at 13:41

I believe that foul in cry foul is an interjection.

At least, when the cry of foul is actually made, it is interruptive of everything around it - so I believe an interjection.

Now that does not mean that the word foul cannot be regarded as adjective, noun, and verb, depending on the context. But it is the case with many words that they are capable of use as various parts of speech.

But as a primary-school child I certainly learned of a part of speech called an interjection. And if a cry of foul isn't one, then I don't know what is.

  • The cry of "Foul!" does seem like it would fit an interjection. The idiom "cry foul" doesn't seem like it. Thanks for the answer!
    – Varis
    Nov 21, 2015 at 18:18

This is a simple question.

noun noun: foul; plural noun: fouls

1. (in sports) an unfair or invalid stroke or piece of play, especially one involving interference with an opponent.

Yes. Foul is a noun in this context. Foul is the thing that is being cried.

  • No; it's not. The origins of this phrase suggest otherwise.
    – Crates
    Nov 23, 2015 at 15:49


Technically it's not "Cry foul", but rather "Cry 'foul'" (though it's usual with such idioms to omit the quotes). The word foul is being quoted, as in "I heard someone cry 'Foul!'." And, of course, "foul" in that sense is short for (depending on your religion) either "Foul ball!", the cry of a baseball umpire, or "Foul play!" from a gambling context.

But regardless of the origin of "foul" in this sense, or its precise meaning, or even the part of speech of the word in normal use, a piece of quoted text functions grammatically as a noun. This is not affected in any way by the meanings or parts of speech of the words quoted.

"Peter cried 'red vertically fell'" is perfectly valid English syntax, even though the quoted text is nonsense. Cried is a transitive verb and 'red vertically fell' is its object.

  • So when the cry of 'foul', meaning 'a foul has been committed' is actually uttered - what is the part of speech then?
    – WS2
    Nov 22, 2015 at 8:55
  • @Mari-LouA & Rathony -- noted.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 22, 2015 at 13:58
  • @WS2 - One can argue that the "etymology", if you will, of "Foul!" is an elision of the sentence you suggest, or one similar, making "foul" a simple noun. I don't think it's an interjection since it actually carries specific meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 22, 2015 at 14:03
  • "Foul [play]" is definitely the object of "cried foul", as is "foul [ball]", and in both instances, regardless of its idiomatic context, "foul" is the adjective describing the nature of the ball or play. If Peter cried, "Red flag!" the word "red" would still be an adjective. The same would hold true regardless of whether the common vernacular had caused the word "flag" to become implicit and no longer included in the phrase.
    – Crates
    Nov 23, 2015 at 15:48
  • @Crates - There's a difference between "Red flag!" and "Peter cried 'Red flag!'". In the latter case "Red flag!" is a syntactic atom.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 23, 2015 at 16:25

"Foul" is a noun, as far as I know, only in a sports context:

The batter hit a foul (meaning the ball landed outside of the playing area within the baselines). Otherwise, it is generally an adjective/modifier.

That month old cottage cheese is foul.

He was asked to leave, because of his use of foul language.

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