Is it right to say:

the scientifically literate?

The reason I ask is that "The literate" is a noun. And the adverb scientifically modifies it. But as far as I know, adverbs cannot modifies noun. Is this rule wrong, or is this phrase ungrammatical?

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    "Literate" is not a noun but an adjective in a 'fused' modifier-head construction where "literate" is understood as "literate people", i.e. the adjective "literate" serves as modifier and head at the same time in the noun phrase. Thus the adverb "scientifically" is modifying an adjective, not a noun.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 9:37
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    You asked about adverbs modifying nouns. The answer is generally no, but it is possible, as in "A shortage of timber internationally led to a rise in prices", where the adverb "internationally" is modifying the noun "shortage". There are constraints, though, for example adverbial modifiers are restricted to post-head position.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 10:42
  • @BillJ Isn’t that just a sentence-adverb of the same kind as found in sentence-initial position like “Internationally, the shortage of timber led to a rise in prices”? Or does that raise the question of whether internationally applies only to the rise or only to the shortage, rather than to the entire sentence?
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:27
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    @tchrist That is a different construction altogether, where "internationally" is a modifier (or supplement) in clause structure. In my example, "internationally" is a dependent in NP structure where it is post-modifying the noun "shortage". Another example would be "Industrial action resulted in the withdrawal indefinitely of the vehicular ferry service", where the adverb "indefinitely" is postmodifying the noun "withdrawal".
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:40
  • Hello, Clair. You have perhaps read somewhere that poor in 'the poor are always with us' and similar constructions is a noun. You need to post a link to this. But it's almost certain that the reference work you cite won't be as highly regarded as the one @Bill is quoting from, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


The phrase the literate is what is known as a fused Modifier-head noun phrase (fused Modifier-head NP, for short).

This noun phrase has an elipted noun which, although missing, is understandable from the context. The head word in this noun phrase is the word literate. Althought is the Head of the noun phrase, it is also understood as a Modifier of the missing word.

If we wanted to we could model the noun phrase like this:

  • The literate [people]

Here it is easy to see that the word literate is an adjective even though it is Head of the noun phrase. If we want to modify this adjective—in other words, we want to say that the people are literate in a scientific way, that they are literate about science—then we need an adverb, not another adjective:

  • the scientifically literate [people]
  • *the scientific literate [people] (ungrammatical with this meaning)
  • the emotionally literate [people]
  • the emotion literate [people] (ungrammatical)

The Original Poster asks if we can modify nouns with adverbs. The answer to this question was previously thought to be "no". However, in the past decade or so research by John Payne, on occasion in collaboration with Huddleston and Pullum, has shown that adverbs can, in fact modify nouns. However, they can only post-modify them (they must appear after the noun they are modifying). There are other types of restriction too. Here's an example with the noun people and the adverb globally:

  • People globally are becoming concerned with what is happening to their local environment.

Here is a link to an important paper by Payne, Huddleston and Pullum where they show that adverbs do in fact sometimes post-modify nouns:

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    But here it is not easy to see that poor is an adjective rather than a noun: the unfortunate poor. As usual, there has to be a decision on whether to lump or split, and if it is decided to lump, how. (Not that I can think of a better approach than H & P's here). Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 11:48
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    There is nothing ungrammatical about the scientific literate. It just means something different from the scientifically literate (which is the meaning people usually want).. Consider the righteous dead (adjective) and the righteously dead (adverb). They also mean different things, and here the adjective is what you usually want. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 12:05
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    It's perfectly fine now. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:12
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    @EdwinAshworth Perhaps a contrastive adj/adv example is the recent dead versus the recently dead.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 14:29
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    @tchrist Good example; 'recent dead' and 'recently dead' are strongly synonymous: a mere connotational change in emphasis from the deceased towards the actual deaths. This isn't the case with 'scientific literate' and 'scientifically literate', the 'intolerable poor' and the 'intolerably poor'. I wonder if the semantics plays a large part here? For these adverbs, temporal / domain / condition-appraising. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 14:48

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