San José State University

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Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley
U.S.A.

The Singularity of Adjectival Nouns

There is an obscure rule of English grammar that we use frequently without being conscious of it. I became conscious of it recently when was reading some material on the economy of Denmark written by a Britisher. He wrote about a prices freeze. At first I thought that it was a more reasonable term than price freeze, since not just one but almost all prices would be frozen. But the term prices freeze just did not sound right. I thought about it for a while and then realized that there is rule that something that is X of Y's like a freeze of prices becomes YX when Y becomes an adjective as in price freeze. I had puzzled as to why we say six foot height for a height of six feet or foot path for a path for (or made by) feet. Likewise a race track five miles long is a five mile race track and a box of groceries weighing ten pounds is a ten pound box of groceries. I thought maybe it was a matter of making an adjective singular to match a singular noun, but we would say a team of seven foot basketball players. A collection of seven power plants each producing 100 megawatts is alternatively seven 100 megawatt power plants.

There is a marvelous performing group in Las Vegas called The Blue Man Group. It consists of three men dressed and covered entirely in blue. One might think that the appropriate title for them would be The Blue Men Group, but that would not be grammatically correct according the material presented above.

So the rule is apparently that a noun being used as an adjective takes its singular form. Such an adjective is sometimes called a noun adjunct. Another grammatical construction is also called an adjectival noun. It is the use of an adjective in place of a noun such as referring to the Irish people as the Irish.

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