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Is the following sentence good/legal/understood English?

Meditation melts the coarse and solidifies the subtle.

If it isn't, how can this be otherwise expressed, in a neat and concise way?

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4 Answers 4

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In most European languages, Article + Adjective constructions can have specific reference; the German nickname for Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, for instance, was Der Alte, which translated literally as 'The Old One'.

While English speakers can and do often delete nouns and pronouns, in context:

  • Q: Do you want the red one or the blue one? A: I'll take the red, thanks.

generally in English, constructions like that can only have Generic reference, not Specific:

  • My great-uncle is the fat one in the middle. [Specific reference = 'the fat person']
  • *My great-uncle is the fat in the middle. [ungrammatical with no head N to modify]
  • My great-uncle is unfortunately among the fat. [Generic reference = 'fat people']

So, the coarse, the subtle, the ridiculous, the sublime, the stupid, the uneducated, all are fine, provided that they don't refer to individual contextually specific things or people, but rather generically, to all such things, without individuation.

What's interesting is whether they have to refer to classes of people, or of things. That's a matter of interpretation, and varies a lot with the adjective and the context.

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    I'd go even farther and say that "the educated" etc. is plural unless a specific noun is left out (as in your "the red"); after all, it takes a plural verb: *the educated never says "don't" v. the educated never say "don't". Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 1:04
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    The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 1:26
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    ... are always with us. Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 1:27
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    Note that in Spanish the article used for these nominalized adjectives is a neuter one, which cannot be used with nouns. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is Lo Bueno, lo Malo y lo Feo. If you talked about el viejo, that would be the old one (masc) or the old man, and la vieja similarly the old one (fem) or the old woman. But the noun-adjective hybrids it becomes “the (adj) thing”, so lo viejo would be the old part, or the old bit, or oldness or some such. It doesn’t work this way in Portuguese or French, which both just use a masculine article to nominalize adjectives.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 1:45
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    @JohnLawler: My family is like a pork belly sandwich- My two great-aunts are the bread, and my great-uncle is the fat in the middle. :-)
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 2:17
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That's fine, assuming by "the subtle" you mean "things which are subtle".

Compare with the phrase "from the ridiculous to the sublime".

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Yes - this is an accepted form of usage. I'm fairly certain that it is used more when speaking in sweeping generalities as in your example "the coarse" and "the subtle."

This is not really less consise than the alternative "coarse thoughts" or "subtle thoughts."

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There is at least one situation in which I am pretty sure it is valid, but I don't know what it's called.

I seem to recall from my English lessons that you can use the adjective with a capital to mean the group of people to which this adjective applies. A well-known example being: "The Rich and the Poor".

What you're describing could be a generalization of this construction, although I wouldn't deem it correct.

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