Because the line of One State is a straight line. The great, divine, precise, wise straight line – the wisest of all lines…

(from Chapter 1, Page 1 of the book, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin: Clarence Brown, 1993 edition)

Is the word 'wisest' a noun or adjective in this sentence? It may be an adjective as it is describing the line (and One State, metaphorically). Or a noun, because of the definite article 'the' before wisest.

My reasoning for why it can be a noun: Determiners don't have to be exactly next to the noun, but they can be. In my example there is clearly lots of determiners but in the subordinate clause of the second sentence... The 'the' is modifying 'wisest'(and hence a noun). If it is treated as a noun then it makes a noun phrase with the 'the' being an adjective. The second determiner 'of' is modifying the noun 'lines' and are not to each other, therefore 'of' is solely a determiner and the noun phrase is "all lines".

  • Why should the definite article mean the word is a noun?
    – Kris
    Mar 31, 2018 at 7:36
  • The Q is based on a misconception/ misinterpretation. Clearly the word is a not a noun.
    – Kris
    Mar 31, 2018 at 7:36
  • 1
    @Kris It functions as a noun and might therefore easily be misclassified; you are welcome to explain why it is not so.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 31, 2018 at 9:09
  • @AndrewLeach My comment was "Why should the definite article mean the word is a noun?"
    – Kris
    Apr 2, 2018 at 6:43
  • @Kris The rule of thumb of standard English is that anthing that follows an a, the or an (determiner) acts as a noun. Even Leach states it 'functions' as a noun and hence the misclassification but I know it's a fused modifier-head now.
    – aesking
    Apr 3, 2018 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


The great, divine, precise, wise straight line – the wisest of all lines ...

"Wisest" is an adjective functioning as a 'fused modifier-head'. It's called this because the single word "wisest" combines, or fuses, the roles of modifier and head, where it heads a noun phrase in a partitive construction. The meaning is "the wisest line of all lines".

  • I see. I accept your answer but it states here lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/SIEG/exx_ch5.html read exercise number 1; where it can be debated whether a word functions as an attributive modififer or noun. They just decided to treat it as a modifier. Does that mean its a subjective thing?
    – aesking
    Apr 3, 2018 at 9:50
  • 3
    @asking The link you provide talks about nouns vs adjective as modifiers of nouns. Your example is different, since there is no overt noun present. Which is why "wisest" is best analysed as a 'fused modifier-head'. It belongs to the category (part of speech) adjective, of course, but it combines (fuses) the functions of modifier and head into the single word "wisest". My analysis is based on Huddleston & Pullum's major grammars.
    – BillJ
    Apr 3, 2018 at 10:17
  • You could argue that the example from the website didn't have an overt noun either? It does state that “The task is to underline the nouns and put the NPs in square brackets. (keeping in mind that one NP can occur within another): In [any natural history of [the human species]], [language] would stand out as [the preeminent trait].
    – aesking
    Apr 3, 2018 at 11:05
  • Also, at the top of the website, they reference the same author as you?: Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A STUDENT'S INTRODUCTION TO ENGLISH GRAMMAR (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
    – aesking
    Apr 3, 2018 at 11:06

The great, divine, precise, wise straight linethe wisest of all lines

Italics are the pre-modifiers and the bold is the head noun. The pre-modifier + head noun construction makes an extended noun phrase.

Defintion of a noun phrase, from:

A noun*, and any words in the sentence that modify it; words that can modify nouns include articles (a, an, the); adjectives; participles; possessive pronouns and verbs [gerund noun phrases].

*Traditionally, a phrase is understood to have 2 or more words. However, more modern schools of syntax, such as the X-bar, define a phrase as: a word or a combination of words that appears in a set syntactic position.

On this understanding of phrases, the nouns and pronouns in bold in the following sentences are noun phrases. Examples:

He saw someone.
Milk is good.
They spoke about corruption.

Another problem is whether a noun phrase is only complete with a determiner. Some websites include the determiner with a noun phrase, or in some the use is interchangeable.

Website 1, includes the determiner with the noun phrase.

The yellow house is for sale.
I want a skate board.
Should we buy the yellow house?

Website 2, includes the determiner but then switches.

The football coach was ecstatic.
She wants to be a beautiful ballerina.
I consider her my favorite teacher.

Has anyone seen an old, big, brown dog?
Let’s go on the long, winding road.
Natives were surprised by the early spring thaw.

This is further complicated by the fact that noun phrases may be used without a determiner.

Consider (example taken from Wikipedia with reference to X-bar theory and other theories, under the "with and without determiners section"):

I like big houses

According to the X-bar theory, there are two possible combinations: noun phrase and N-bar (N stands for noun; similar to how verb (V) can be substituted in X ("X-bar theory)).

In the sentence I like big houses, [houses] and [big houses*] are both N-bars, but [big houses] also functions as a noun phrase. I think if you consider a noun phrase by its individual components [adjective + noun] it's a noun phrase, but if you consider it by its function, which is to act as a noun - it is an N-bar.

In some modern theories of syntax, "noun phrases with a determiner" are considered as determiner phrases (DP) whereby the determiner is considered to be the head word and not a noun phrase. In cases without a determiner, that use this approach such as in I like big houses, what is referred to a N-bar may actually be referred to as a noun phrase.

Confusing? I know.

Consider this sentence with a determiner (example taken from Wikipedia with reference to X-bar theory and other theories, under the "with and without determiners section"):

Here is the big house

According to the X-bar theory, both [house] and [big house] are N-bars, while [the big house*] is a noun phrase. This is because if you consider big house as a single noun phrase: the determiner is modifying [big house] as a single noun phrase, forming a longer noun phrase. Some may refer to this as an extended noun phrase (depending on how it is viewed). For example, the subordinate clause the big house may be seen as a single noun phrase, with 'the' and 'big' being pre-modifiers to the head noun 'house'.

In contrast to more modern theories, they would view this as a determiner phrase (if there's a determiner involved) and only a noun phrase (if there is no determiner involved).


Reasons for 'wisest' not being a noun:

  • In my example, [the wisest of all lines] may be seen as determiner phrase.

Reasons for 'wisest' being a noun:

  • According to the X-bar theory, [wisest] [all] [lines] are n-bars and [the wisest of all lines] is a noun phrase
  • Adjectives can be used as nouns, just as nouns can be used as adjectives: as seen here and here

Reasons for it being an adjective:

  • If you consider, [the wisest of all lines] as a noun phrase and not a determiner phrase and looked at each components individually: wisest is an adjective but functions as a noun in a wider picture.
  • If you consider a noun phrase as only complete with a determiner, then wisest in [the wisest of all lines] is an adjective: (determiner + adjective + determiner + adjective + noun) - all of which are pre-modifiers modifying the 'head noun' lines, as shown by Teachingenglish.org.uk's example, in particular this one.

Due to lots of consistencies and overlaps, I don't think it's correct to call it either an adjective or noun without it being debated. I think the terms fused modifer head are more appropriate.

However, like my English teacher says, "You can say anything in English as long as you can back it up".

TL;DR Wow, I can't believe I answered my own question but it was frustrating me in search of a concrete answer, only to find there isn't one.

  • @Elasthiccgirl Yes because it is an anaphoric reference to "The [great, divine, precise, wise] straight line –" the hyphen bridging this connection. "The line" it's talking about is actually referred to in the first sentence. Adding line again would be tautological.
    – aesking
    Jun 23, 2018 at 5:39

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