I recently encountered this tweet with a caption on a photo of people eating dinner:

A group of Chinese eating Japanese

If you have a dark mind like mine, you might find some dark humor in this statement (it kinda sounds like it describes a scene of horrific cannabalism).

I have two questions about this:

  1. Is there a formal term for this construction of referring to a noun (people) by an adjective (Chinese)?

  2. Does this statement violate any English grammar or style? Because it seems to me that referring to two separate nouns (food and people) using just the adjectives describing them is confusing at best.

  • I'm not sure what you mean? I think you mean a noun phrase (adjective + noun) Chinese people. That caption also doesn't make sense, while Japanese is a noun it refers to the people and not the food, therefore it should be Japanese food at the end which also makes an (adjective + noun) construction whereby Japanese acts as an adjective for the common noun 'food'. Chinese and Japanese (nouns acting as adjectives) are also called pre-modifiers. – aesking Apr 5 '18 at 20:44
  • It depends if it was meant to be intended as dark humour/horrific cannibalism. If so, it doesn't violate grammar rules per say, as that was the way it was intended. But from the link you gave and the picture, it doesn't seem that way to me and more of a common grammar mistake non-native speakers make. Some could argue it's a form of colloquialism/idiom, people do say "I'm ordering Chinese" without sticking food at the end. – aesking Apr 5 '18 at 20:55
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  • It's a technique of (usually) humor, where a different meaning of a word changes the meaning of the sentence; in this case unintended. – Xanne Apr 5 '18 at 21:02

I think the term you're looking for is Nominalized adjective, according to Wikipedia:

A nominalized adjective is an adjective that has undergone nominalization, and is thus used as a noun. For example, in the rich and the poor, the adjectives rich and poor function as nouns denoting people who are rich and poor respectively.

In your sentence a group of Chinese can be read as a group of Chinese people and Japanese can be read as Japanese food. The latter can be done for many countries with a particular cuisine, some examples (the [food] in brackets is optional):

Let's eat Italian [food] today.

Do you like Chinese [food]? Not really, I prefer Thai [food].

Shall I order Mexican [food]? Not today, I'm more in the mood for Indian [food].

It might seem weird because it can be interpreted in other ways (for example if you replace the [food] with [people] in the examples above), however, that is the case with a lot of words. A lot of words have multiple meanings, but it's mostly clear from the context the words are used in.

Attribution: "Nominalized Adjective." Wikipedia. April 04, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominalized_adjective.

  • But Chinese and and Japanese are widely accepted as both nouns and adjectives anyway, so to say they have been 'normalised' like poor or rich, I'm not so sure. Furthermore, there is an X and Y problem, since words can be adjectives or nouns depending on how they are used, how do we know clearly that an adjective has been turned into a noun (and not the other way around), the words rich and poor are more easy to discern as you'd just normally associate these with adjectives, but if written in a certain way, they can be nouns. – aesking Apr 5 '18 at 21:32
  • @aesking actually, not all dictionaries list 'Chinese' as a noun for 'Chinese food'. For example Cambridge Dictionary, which only lists 'person from China' and the 'Chinese language' for the noun 'Chinese'. – JJJ Apr 5 '18 at 21:41
  • I don't see the relevance to nominalisation? The dictionary isn't going to give every possible word it can be attributed to. But the Cambridge dictionary does state it as both a noun and adjective. My main point was discerning the distinction between whether it was originally an adjective 'nominalised' (a process) into a noun, or it was used as a noun. To me both are very different things. IMO, Chinese and Japanese are words which doesn't need to be nominalised into a noun, as we associate and use it as both. – aesking Apr 5 '18 at 21:47
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    @aesking the OP asks for a term for 'referring to a noun by its adjective', that's what's happening here and this seems to be the term for that. I am wondering though, wouldn't it be weird if 'Chinese' was a noun meaning 'Chinese food' before there was an adjective for 'Chinese'? I expect (but haven't verified) that the term 'Chinese' for 'Chinese food' will have its origin somewhere in the previous century as Chinese food became available in the West. The adjective 'Chinese' was probably in use before that to refer to things related to China (but before their food was available in the West). – JJJ Apr 5 '18 at 21:52
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    Just because it is commonly used as a noun doesn't mean that it wasn't derived from an adjective (or verb in some cases). See this article by TFD on nominalization which includes many commonly used word, including teacher, actor and writer. Those examples are derived from the corresponding verbs (according to TFD). – JJJ Apr 5 '18 at 22:07

(Addresses Q No.1)

This is called compounding, a type of morphology:

In linguistics, the process of combining two or more words to create a new word (commonly a noun, verb or adjective)

It has also has other names, such as as an attributive noun, compounded noun or noun adjunct. But compounding is the overarching term for this. Furthermore, I think it's also better to refer to Chinese and food or people as lexemes because word classes and parts of speech can sometimes be subjective.

Hence, why I feel like the term compounding is better, because they can be formed through a combinations of lexemes:-

  • Lexeme + Lexeme - toothpaste
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - monthly ticket
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - swimming pool
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - underground
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - haircut
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - dry-cleaning
  • Lexeme + Lexeme - output

However, we would normally associate these lexemes with the following word classes:-

  • Noun + Noun - toothpaste
  • Adjective + Noun - monthly ticket
  • Verb + Noun - swimming pool
  • Preposition + Noun - underground
  • Noun + Verb - haircut
  • Adjective + Verb - dry-cleaning
  • Preposition + Verb - output

And sometimes they are joined using a hyphen (but not always)

Source: https://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/nouncompound.html

Example of a noun adjunct:

"chicken soup"

  • Are "tooth" and/or "paste" adjectives? The OP is talking about the adjectives Chinese, as in "a Chinese person" and Japanese as in "a Japanese restaurant". We went Mexican (we had a Mexican meal) – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '18 at 7:10
  • I see. "Adjectival noun is a term that was formerly synonymous with noun adjunct but is now usually used to mean "an adjective used as a noun" (i.e. the opposite process, as in the Irish meaning "Irish people" or the poor meaning "poor people")". – aesking Jun 2 '18 at 12:14
  • That "tooth" is also a NOUN adjunct goes without dispute, it acts like an adjective but it is not an adjective. What can be described as "tooth"? The OP is asking about adjectives, you have examples of compound words made with nouns, verbs, prepositions and with two adjectives: "monthly" and "dry". But when are 'monthly" and "dry" used as nouns? Your answer is about a different question. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '18 at 12:44
  • I also gave the example "chicken soup" we can say this is a noun adjunct but did the adjective chicken come before the noun chicken? I would like to know with supporting evidence. – aesking Jun 2 '18 at 12:47
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    All your examples are clearly noun/adjective compounds. Here are a few others: high-rise, short-tempered, new-born, red-headed etc. and these compounds all they have adjectives, but the following examples: (the) Chinese, (the) Mexican, (the) rich, (the) poor, (the) disabled etc. are not compounds. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '18 at 13:32

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