Oxford Dictionaries classify 'Japanese' in 'the Japanese,' meaning people from Japan collectively, as a noun although some people I consulted insist it is an adjective. They base it on the examples 'the French' and 'the Dutch.'

Who is right? Or, are they both right?

  • It took them three hours to get to the Longhua Airport, used as an air force base for the Japanese.
  • Apart from the American Indians, the Japanese make some use of lily bulbs in traditional dishes. (source: Oxford Dictionaries)
  • This thread should help clear things up.
    – Davo
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 11:37
  • I read it, but alas it is no help for me. It just explains how abstract adjectives could be converted to nouns by adding 'the,' but my question concerns if it's an adjective or a noun. If I knew it was an adjective, then I could tell how 'the Japanese' stands right. For now, it could be a noun, it could be an adjective.
    – Sssamy
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 11:51
  • 2
    It depends on how you interpret it. One can argue that "the Japanese" is an elided version of "the Japanese people", using "Japanese" as an adjective, or one can argue that it's a noun, with no elision. The "rules" of English syntax were invented after the language.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 11:57
  • Both your example sentences use 'the Japanese' correctly (though I'd change 'Apart from' to 'Like'. // This Wikipedia article addresses 'nominal adjectives'. According to this, it never stops being an adjective. But some grammarians doubtless disagree. Some might even argue with the hypernym 'substantive'. The most appropriate view would be 'What does it matter what you call it? How it's used is what matters.' which I'm fairly sure @John Lawler would give. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 11:58
  • 1
    You can view the Japanese as either a noun or an adjective. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 14:17

3 Answers 3


In a comment BillJ wrote:

In your examples, "Japanese" is an adjective in a 'fused-head' construction. "The Japanese" is then a noun phrase used generically and determined by "the", where the head and the modifier "Japanese" are 'fused' into the single word "Japanese". We understand it to mean the inhabitants of Japan.

Other commenters have mentioned the concept of nominalized adjectives. This accounts for why people can say “the Japanese” to mean the Japanese people, but “*a Japanese” sounds funny. You see the same thing when folks refer to “the old” but where again “*an old” is ungrammatical.

The OED writes that Japanese as a noun is:

Formerly as true n. with pl. in -es; now only as adj. used absol. and unchanged for pl.: a Japanese, two Japanese, the Japanese.

In the Wikipedia article on nominalized adjectives, they write:

The most common appearance of the nominalized adjective in English is when an adjective is used to indicate a collective group. This happens in the case where a phrase such as the poor people becomes the poor. The adjective poor is nominalized, and the noun people disappears. Other adjectives commonly used in this way include rich, wealthy, homeless, disabled, blind, deaf, etc., as well as certain demonyms such as English, Welsh, Irish, French, Dutch.

See also this answer.

  • 1
    The OED seems contrary to what I think (and what you said prior to the OED reference). It lists 'a Japanese' and 'two Japanese' presumably for what I would say as 'a Japanese person' or 'two Japanese people'. Am I misreading your OED quote?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 2:36

They are nouns*

*in my layman's opinion.

The Japanese
The French
The Dutch

While these are all correct, the same does not apply to some other nationalities:

The Belgians
The South Africans

I've looked up all five nationalities in the OED, and I noticed that for all five nationalities, the words are also explicitly defined nouns.

Japanese, French, Dutch, Belgian, South African

It seems to me that "the Japanese" is a noun. It stands to reason that its usage is based on the original adjective.
It just happens to be the same as the adjective, but there is a separate definition for the noun and the adjective in the OED, thus making them separate words, grammatically speaking.

Interesting to note

The first three examples all end in an "s"-like sound, which makes it hard to hear the difference between singular and plural. I have a feeling this is related, because this distinction seems to apply to every nationality I can think of.

The Swedes
The Finnish
The Danish
The Russians
The Chinese
The Bulgarians
The Americans
and many, many more...

edit Here is a list of nationalities.
I've browsed the majority of the list and the presence of a plural "s" (when referring to the people) seems to always correlate to whether the nationality ends in an "s"-like sound.

There is an exception...

Thanks to GEdgar for pointing it out.

Finnish is not defined as a noun when referring to the people (only when referring to the language).
In this case, "the Finnish" would be a nominal adjective (as per Edwin Ashworth's comment), not a noun.

(Unless the absence of this defined noun is a mistake in the OED, but I can't know that based on its absence.)

  1. If it is defined as a noun in the dictionary, then you should consider it a noun.
  2. If no noun is found, but the word is defined as an adjective, then you should consider it a nominal adjective.
  3. If it is not defined as a noun or an adjective, then it is not correct English (unless loan words are considered correct even if not defined? I'm not quite sure about that)
  • 2
    The Finnish or the Finns? The Danish or the Danes? The Scottish or the Scots?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 13:08
  • @GEdgar: The existence of synonyms doesn't really change the fact that the words are all defined as nouns (in the OED). If anything, your examples are further examples of the plural "s" appearing only where there is no "s" sound already. Note I checked your examples, and "Finnish" is the only one that is not defined as a noun in the OED (when referring to the people. It is still defined as a noun for the language). So it would be correct to say that "the Finnish" (referring to the people) is a nominal adjective (see Edwin Ashworth's comment to the question)
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 13:21
  • People definitely say I am a Japanese, I am a Chinese, I am an American and I am a Russian. Does anybody ever say I am a Finnish or I am a Danish? I think they'd say I am a Finn or I am a Dane. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 13:33
  • 1
    @PeterShor: "I am a Chinese" I have never heard this phrase. You do hear I am Chinese and I am a Chinese [noun]. In both cases, that is the adjective. The same applies to Japanese. Russian doesn't quite seem to fit your list of examples, as it is strictly defined as a single Russian national, "Russian" never refers to the country's citizens collectively.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 13:39
  • 1
    @PeterShor: "This is why they don't list Finnish as a noun; nobody ever says I am a Finnish." You are conflating the idea of a noun that refers to a single national and a noun that refers to all nationals. These two have nothing to do with each other from a grammatical perspective as far as I'm aware, even if their spelling happens to be the same. Different definitions should apply (no one says "the Russian" for all Russian nationals either). There is no automatic relationship where a singular refers to a collective, or vice versa.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 13:55

It's an adjective, since it can be modified by the adverb "partly". Nouns can't be modified by adverbs.


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