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, 2018 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, 2018 at 20:55
  • 1
  • 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, 2018 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


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.


(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"


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