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The Question: Is it acceptable to use a nominalized participle as an adjective?

A participle is a verb form used as an adjective; examples include the running man and the caught ball, as well as (sorry for the self-reference) a verb form used as an adjective.

A nominalized adjective is an adjective that functions as a noun. One example of such is in the classic garden-path sentence: The old man the boat. These are often formed by the elision of people immediately following the adjective in question.

Finally, a noun adjunct is a noun that is used as would be an adjective: The tennis player. The chicken soup. The beer drinker.

If one were to nominalize a participle, it would result in something along the lines of the running are the most fit. Though this looks awkward (and, quite frankly, wrong), my gut tells me that this is a valid construction. If I am wrong about this, then the rest of my question can be ignored, so please inform me.

Now to adjuncts. A gerund (a verb used as a noun) can certainly be used in this way: The gaming addicts. I can conceive no reason why nominalized participles would not also be usable like this (unless I am wrong about the existence of nominalized participles); a word used so would be a verb used as an adjective used as a noun used as an adjective. However, after several hours of thought, I have been unable to form an example that does not sound incorrect nearly comprehension.

The Question, again: Can participles be nominalized? If so, can the nominalized participle then be used to describe a noun? Finally, assuming affirmation of the previous two questions, what is a way (if one exists) to use a verb in this way without it sounding completely incorrect?

Thanks!

  • 'The living and the dead.' But you're asking for a general rule where English is far less predictable. The knitting and the sewing meet every Thursday'? // The definition for 'participle' you give is defective. In 'He got going', 'going' is a participle. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 9 '17 at 1:12
  • Probably the only reason it sounds incorrect is because people don't say such things. And there's no reason to. – AmE speaker Jun 9 '17 at 5:47
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No, I don't think so.

This is just a short attempt to present some ideas; I would recommend that anyone interested in delving into the grammar of these structures look for literature, since I have the impression that this is an area that has been studied a fair amount and I'm not familar with it.

First, a minor terminological (or perhaps not?) issue: I believe there is dispute about categorizing "the old" etc. as nominalizations. An analysis I have encountered that seems, at least at first glance, to be different is that "old" remains an adjective, making "the old" a noun phrase with no noun (it can be explained as a kind of ellipsis). See http://ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/11773.pdf for some discussion that I haven't finished reading.

Prototypical examples of nominalized adjectives, like daily for "daily paper," take the plural suffix -(e)s when used with plural meaning (dailies). The word "old" never takes the plural suffix -(e)s.

However, note that "the old," "the poor" etc. do take a plural interpretation and verb agreement. If they are classified as plural nouns, this might partially explain why they cannot be used as attributive nouns: there is a well-known strong tendency for attributive nouns to be singular. However, some pluralia tantum can be used attributively, like clothes and glasses (the use of these seems to be motivated by avoiding homophony with cloth and glass, which have different meanings). So I'm not sure this is a very strong argument.

Alternatively, the explanation might be that the article "the" is an integral part of this grammatical construction. As I said, we don't use "old" with a singular interpretation, so it never appears with the indefinite article in normal language (*an old). We also don't use it as a plural with zero article, however: *"I saw (some) old in the library" cannot be used to mean "I saw (some) old people in the library".

As far as I can tell, the construction only occurs with the article "the" preceding the adjective. And the article "the" cannot be included in an attributive noun/noun adjunct.

Regarding participles: certainly, participles can be "nominalized" or in any case used in whatever construction we call "the old". Your example with "the running are the most fit" does sound awkward, but the general construction exists. You used a present participle, but I find it easier to think of examples of past participles that are often nominalized: "the hunted," "the fallen", "the lost" and so on. Some present-participle examples are "the living", "the dying", "the sleeping".

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