Adjectives can sometimes be used as nouns

Friday May 19 2017



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Every time parliamentary and other political elections are around the corner in Kenya, funny words invade our English-language media. What, for instance, are “governor hopefuls”? I picked up those words, thus juxtaposed, from a commanding headline on page 19 of this week’s Sunday Nation.

A subeditor wrote the headline “Choice of suitable deputies big headache for governor hopefuls”. In ordinary circumstances, the word hopeful is an adjective. But other circumstances exist in which that adjective can be used substantively, that is to say, as a noun.

It is thus that, in our country, the newspapers habitually describe as “hopefuls” (noun, plural) all those who enter the fray for elective legislative positions, national and local. In the Sunday Nation’s case, clearly, the adjective hopeful is functioning as a noun. That is why it can be pluralised as “hopefuls”.

For I know of no rule of English grammar which bans the use of adjectives as nouns. To reiterate, the adjective “hopeful” can be used substantively to stand for anybody who announces his or her wish to enter Parliament through elections. In the above case, that word is used to serve the noun “governor” merely adjectivally.

That is where the grammar problem catches up with Kenya’s news people. To be sure, no rule of English grammar known to me outlaws the use of nouns adjectivally. The term “the Kenyan government” is a shining example. Both words “Kenyan” and “government” are nouns. But the word Kenyan functions as an adjective to describe the noun “government”.


There, and in all ordinary circumstances, both words “Kenyan” and “government” are nouns. Yet, as soon as you juxtapose them, with the noun Kenyan coming first, you force that noun to serve the noun government adjectivally.

That phenomenon is common in the Anglo-Saxon language. We must observe it strictly since it is by our own volition that we have borrowed English for all governmental, diplomatic, commercial and other important national and international uses. In a word, all such nouns can be “adjectivised”, if such a verb exists, without altering their substantive forms.

It is possible to use the adjective hopeful as a noun to refer, for example, to any of all those individuals now preparing to stand for elective posts in Kenya’s political system and who, therefore, needless to say, hope to romp into a building whose occupants allege to be “the august house” – even though the personal conduct of most of our elected individuals is far from august.

The term “governor hopefuls” is simply a coinage by reporters, subeditors and Kenya’s other newspaper practitioners used to refer to all those who hope to be elected to local strongmen and women. But, as a Kenyan parliamentarian used to scoff, why should anybody seek to substantiate the obvious?

I dare you to show me any person in his or her senses who would invest such vast resources in such a pursuit without hoping to reap anything from it. As reapers, Kenya’s parliamentarians have no equals among the world’s chrysalises.