There is a convention that frontend is a noun, whereas front-end is an adjective (in the context of computing and software development.)

There are certainly sentences in which the word is unambiguously a noun:

They built the frontend quickly.

But in all of the cases I think of to use it as an adjective-like-thing (front-end frameworks, front-end model, etc.) it doesn't seem clear to me whether it's acting as an adjective or merely as a "Modifier Noun"

I imagine that there are other equivalent cases for other words, though none come immediately to mind.

Is there any consistent way to distinguish between adjective vs modifier noun, if the modifying word exists independently as both things?

Is it even meaningful to describe such a situation?

Is the problem actually that the original convention was meaningless to start with?

  • Your link says Use "front end" (noun) & "front-end" (adjective) Instead of "front-end" or "frontend" (noun) & "front end" or "frontend" (adjective). I can't see anything there endorsing the single-word form. The full Oxford English Dictionary doesn't include the single-word form in any definitions - it does occur once it cited example usages, but that's as against dozens of cites for both the two-word and hyphenated forms. The distinction you seem to be asking about is largely spurious - it's just that we hyphenate such forms when used as attributive adjectives (before noun). Commented Jul 7 at 14:25
  • 2
    This question is similar to: Why is "brick" in "a brick house" a noun, whereas "plastic" in "a plastic bucket" is an adjective?. If you believe it’s different, please edit the question, make it clear how it’s different and/or how the answers on that question are not helpful for your problem. // See ... Commented Jul 7 at 15:04
  • @FumbleFingers I am disappointed that you have again answered in comments. I know you know where the answer box is, so do please use it.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 7 at 15:14
  • @tchrist I can't read FumbleFingers mind, but I do note that the comment here doesn't actually answer my question at all. It points out (entirely correctly) that the asserted premise of the question is incorrect and I should be using the 2 word form, if I want to cite that source. But that's really entirely incidental to the question - if I were to claim it was a typo, and not inattention, then I could correct the question and the comment could be deleted and no value would be lost.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Jul 7 at 16:00

1 Answer 1


Yes, there are various syntactic tests that allow one to distinguish nouns from adjectives.

A simple one that often works well enough is to see what sorts of modifiers can be applied. The quickest one is very in the intensifier sense, which only works on adjectives and adverbs, not on nouns or verbs.

So for example, a (1) friend of dogs might be called a (2) dog friend. Obviously in the first instance it’s noun because it’s been morphologically inflected into the standard plural noun form.

But what about the second instance? But you could not call them a (3) ❌ very dog friend. This failure tells you that dog is here still a noun, not an adjective.

We can gather more evidence still.

A related test attempts to inflect dog into the comparative degree, yielding (4) Jane is a ❌ dogger friend than Dick is. So this second test’s failure confirms that all these examples’ dogs are indeed nouns, never adjectives.

Now try this same sort of things with front end, and you quickly discover that it is only ever a noun, even when used attributively.

Remember that writing, by which I mean spelling, doesn’t matter grammatically because it is only a convention of technology. You need to use grammatical tests like those of syntax or morphology to decide what something is doing grammatically. These are things you hear not see.

  • Isn't the duplicate adequate? Commented Jul 7 at 15:34
  • @EdwinAshworth Probably. We may need both dupes marked though because people are also confusing writing technology with real language again here.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 7 at 15:39
  • This is fantastic; thank you!
    – Brondahl
    Commented Jul 7 at 16:00
  • Used attributively, the Oxford on-line dictionary gives it as an adjective, and so does the Cambridge: link / link
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 7 at 17:09
  • 1
    @BillJ What syntactic tests for adjectives does it pass? What syntactic tests for nouns does it fail? Can adjectives fall between it and its noun? I’m serious here: I’d like to know how this is supposed to work. I didn't mention predicate tests, but these too exist. Just because you have a front axle, that doesn't mean that your axle is somehow “front”; it is not: it's for the front—the same way that a child seat is a seat for a child, and not a seat that’s somehow “child” itself. In any event I thought we weren't supposed to trust dictionaries for grammatical information. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 7 at 17:11

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