From the July 21st Economist, a letter to the editor with an initially puzzling use of the term adjective, according to which bully, despot, buffoon, and villain count as adjectives. I was reminded of the NYT‘s use of adjective to refer to the word cocksuckers, reported on here. I’m beginning to understand what’s going on here.

The letter:

Trait marks

SIR – The adjectives you use to describe some national leaders make interesting reading. In just one recent leader, for example, Bashar Assad is “bloodstained”, Muammar Qaddafi was a “crazy tyrant”, Yemen’s former president is a “bully”, Hosni Mubarak a “despot” (“Egypt in peril”, June 23rd). In another piece Saudi Arabia’s late Prince Nayef was apparently “antediluvian” (“Time for the old men to give way”, June 23rd). Your all-time favourites, however, seem to be North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and his son, Kim Jong Un. The former you described, among other things, as a “small fat man” with a “pot belly”; a “bouffanted buffoon” and a “cartoon villain”. The son is “plump” and “over-pampered”; “plump but callow”; “podgy” and also “pudgy”; “well-upholstered but juvenile”; just “juvenile”; and “insecure”. And so on.

Compared with these descriptions, Mexico’s Vicente Fox gets off relatively lightly —he’s merely “a former Coca-Cola salesman”. Presumably his physical attributes did not attract your attention.

Achal Raghavan

Back on the 5th, the NYT quoted the Diehipster site as saying “you [Offensive Adjective Inappropriate for Family Newspaper]”, when the word in question was cocksuckers.

In both cases, people are using adjective to refer to words that are clearly nouns (or larger noun-headed phrases). The problem is avoidable; the writers could have said “the words you use to describe…” and  “Offensive Word Inappropriate for Family Newspaper”, respectively. But instead they chose to go for a technical term more specific than word (possibly in the belief that using the technical terminology of syntax lends weight to what they have to say) — and chose an incorrect one. But not as wildly incorrect a term as verb, preposition, or adverb would have been.

My focus here is on this issue, but I can’t let Achal Raghavan’s objection just pass: the Economist‘s choice of descriptions for public figures — judgments like bloodstained, crazy tyrant, and the like, in combination with unflattering physical descriptions — represents heavy editorializing in news stories. Granted, other news media do this, but even if you agree with the opinions, you might reasonably object to the slanted wording.

Back to the grammatical terminology. What I think lies at the center of these uses of adjective for nouns or nominals is the fact that many uses of nouns are straightforwardly predicative, and other uses are indirectly predicative — just like the uses of adjectives.

Adjectives denote properties, and so are used in predicates (Kim is / became  /seems idiotic) and as adnominal modifiers (an idiotic person), to predicate these properties of particular referents. Nouns can also be used in similar fashion in predicates (Kim is an idiot) and in adnominal modifiers (that idiot Kim). Nouns normally denote discourse referents, but even these uses can be seen as secondarily predicative: idiot in An idiot is in charge establishes a discourse referent, call it x, and also predicates being a madman of x.

There’s a lot more, but this should be enough to establish the close semantic relationship between nouns and adjectives. So if you think syntactic categories like Adj are semantically defined — as a long tradition of traditional grammar has it — and if you perceive, at some level, the semantic similarities between adjectives and nouns, then you’ll be tempted use the label adjective for nouns used (as you see it) predicatively.

But syntactic categories (or “parts of speech”) are constructs of (morpho)syntax, not semantics. Idiotic and idiot are semantically similar — not identical, but similar — but they have very different syntax, and that’s what the technical terms adjective and noun are for.

The technical term predicative isn’t known by most people, so adjective is as close as you can get to the meaning you might want in talking about despot for Hosni Mubarak or cocksuckers in “immigrants who do not seek attention like you cocksuckers”. Though, as I pointed out above, word would have done perfectly well in the context; it just wouldn’t have been a technical term of syntax and maybe wouldn’t have been as impressive as adjective.


One Response to “Adjectives”

  1. Achal Raghavan Says:

    Dear Mr. Zwicky:

    You are right – I had indeed clubbed nouns with adjectives in my letter to The Economist. Thank you for pointing this out. I promise to watch my grammar more closely in future.

    I must, however, hasten to clarify that the (mis)use was quite instinctive. There was no attempt to sound more “impressive”.


    Achal Raghavan
    Bangalore, India

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