I wonder when this horrible trend started—to me it seems to have proliferated very recently, over the last year or two:

Give the gift of happy this Christmas

..or how about this, from the website of a taxi-hailing smartphone app:

Quick, safe and reliable is right at your fingertips.

Ignoring for the moment the equally mind-boggling choice of is rather than are in that sentence, is there term for this marketing-led practice of using adjectives as abstract nouns? (By "term" I mean a noun—I can think of many adjectives to describe it.)

Edit: I see this as somewhat distinct from the use of adjectives as concrete countable nouns, to which I'd become more accustomed without even noticing it. Usually it's when "one" or "ones" or "thing" or "things" is implicit, as in The Incredibles, or The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, or you have to take the rough with the smooth. To me, somehow, the definite article makes it OK, whereas it's a whole new level of nasty (sic) to use adjectives as abstract uncountable nouns. Maybe there's a lot of subjectivity in that.

Edit 2: Maybe the defining difference between these new formations and other more-established zero-derivation nominalizations (thank you tchrist for the terms) is this: in the older cases they tend to be a good way of expressing an idea more succinctly than otherwise (try rewriting you've got to take the rough with the smooth and it will sound less pithy); by contrast, in the offending new cases there is already a perfectly good abstract noun that would fit right into the sentence without changing the meaning (happiness, speed, safety and reliability in the above examples).

  • Think different. – John Clifford Feb 9 '16 at 13:56
  • That is, I think, different ;-) because it's an adjective used as an adverb. But also nasty. – jez Feb 9 '16 at 13:57
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    Sorry, should have said "it's also an example of nasty." – jez Feb 9 '16 at 13:58
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    You mean It's also a nasty – bib Feb 9 '16 at 13:59
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    And the singular verb might be okay in some circumstances. Car A gives you quick. Car B gives you quick and safe. But quick, safe and reliable is only available from car C! – bib Feb 9 '16 at 14:02

This is nominalization produced by zero derivation. That happens when a non-noun is used as a noun without requiring a derivational affix.

Per Wikipedia:

In linguistics, nominalization or nominalisation is the use of a word which is not a noun (e.g. a verb, an adjective or an adverb) as a noun, or as the head of a noun phrase, with or without morphological transformation.


Some languages simply allow verbs to be used as nouns without inflectional difference (conversion or zero derivation), while others require some form of morphological transformation. English has cases of both.

This in particular is zero derivation, which again per Wikipedia is:

In linguistics, conversion, also called zero derivation, is a kind of word formation; specifically, it is the creation of a word (of a new word class) from an existing word (of a different word class) without any change in form. For example, the noun green in golf (referring to a putting-green) is derived ultimately from the adjective green.

Conversions from adjectives to nouns and vice versa are both very common and unnotable in English; much more remarked upon is the creation of a verb by converting a noun or other word (e.g., the adjective clean becomes the verb to clean).

In other words, this happens constantly and is wholly unremarkable.

  • That's helpful. But same question as for @bib: is it worth, then, making a terminological distinction between the practice of this with the definite article and without? The former seems well-established and natural, whereas the latter seems to have, er... much more novel and nonsensical to it. As the awkwardness of that attempt illustrates – jez Feb 9 '16 at 14:27
  • @Jez, to complicate matters, even the uses of adjectives as nouns without definite articles are not always "novel and nonsensical." For example, 'red' was likely an adjective before it was ever used as a noun, but we use it as a noun without a definite article in sentences like 'Red is a color' which have no flavor of novelty or markedness like the marketing ones you point to. – GoldenGremlin Feb 9 '16 at 14:48
  • @Silenus Hmm, yes. Orange is the new black. Different is the new normal. Divorced is the new single. – jez Feb 9 '16 at 15:14

The use of adjectives as nouns is common in Latin, from which some of our vocabulary and forms derive.

Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant (Hail Emperor, those who are about to die salute you)

Morituri is actually a participle form, used as an adjective, and could be translated literally the about to be dying.

Using adjectives as nouns in English has been common for some time.

Only the good die young

(No, Billy Joel did not coin the phrase. Wordsworth said O Sir! the good die first, And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust Burn to the socket. This has morphed over time to the simpler phrase.)

This is more often found with either a definite or indefinite article.

The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.

Marc Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

  • Is it worth, then, making a terminological distinction between the practice of this with the definite article and without? The former seems well-established and natural, whereas the latter seems to have, er... much more novel and nonsensical to it. – jez Feb 9 '16 at 14:25
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    @jez But it also works with pronominal adjectives, doesn't it, my dear? – bib Feb 9 '16 at 14:27
  • But is there a name for this phenomenon? There is a difference between the use of "good" in "the good die young" and "the good is interred with their bones." How can we denote that difference? – phoog Feb 5 at 16:04

I believe the term you're looking for is "substantive." A substantive is a word or group of words that are used syntactically as a noun.

In the USA national anthem, the last line goes, "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave" where 'free' and 'brave' refer to people. Other well known phrases already elaborated on top as contributed by Bib.

Also, the common phrase is "you have to take the good with the bad." I've never heard "you have to take the rough with the smooth"...

The use of substatives isn't a nasty trend, or even a new trend. It's a rather normal part of the English language. I forget if I learned about substantives in middle school English or high school Latin. (Here I removed the word "class" and used just the class subject as a substantive).

That said, I also do think nouns should be used in those ads as you mentioned, especially if it's in writing. When speaking, anything kinda goes.

  • Do you have references for this? According to dictionaries it's just a (dated) synonym for noun. – Helmar Sep 14 '17 at 8:29

adnoun. its an antique word meaning adjective, but successfully shows the usage of an adjective AS a noun

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    Adnoun used to be just a word for adjective, but has been recently used as a word specifically for nouns used attributively (as in "door knob"). Neither of those covers an adjective used as a noun. – Andrew Leach Sep 20 '17 at 16:57
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    @AndrewLeach Nice to know. I think about adnouns (without, until now, knowing that that's what they're called) every time I drive over the Bear Mountain River Bridge. – jez Sep 22 '17 at 5:33

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