Where are the adjectives, Bernie?

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The Bernie Sanders campaign sent out a tweet at 10 a.m., reading: "Greed, fraud, dishonesty, arrogance. These are just some of the adjectives we use to describe Wall Street." That got the attention of Jezebel blogger Joanna Rothkopf, who posted it under the headline, "These Are All Nouns, Bernie." Shortly thereafter, the tweet was deleted, but I was able to grab a screenshot in time.

This reminds me of a column that appeared in the New York Times Magazine ten years ago, "Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?" (Feb. 26, 2006) by the social psychologists Barry Schwartz, Hazel Rose Marks, and Alana Conner Snibbe. They wrote:

In a recent study with Nicole Stephens at Stanford University, we asked college students to pick "three adjectives that best capture what the word 'choice' means to you." A higher percentage of those who had parents with a college education said "freedom," "action" and "control," while more of those whose parents had only a high-school education responded with "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."

I posted about this on Language Log at the time, wondering whether the confusion over adjectives and nouns was the fault of the college students, the psychologists, or — as I suspected — the editors of the column. Regardless, I noted that it's a common mix-up:

Nouns that don't denote substantive things sometimes don't seem "noun-y" enough to qualify for that part of speech. Hence Jon Stewart can tell a graduating class that the word "terror" is "not even a noun," while Timothy Noah can write on Slate that words like "humbug" and "poppycock" are adjectives. So it wouldn't be surprising if an editor looking to tighten up the writers' prose made a quick redaction that ended up treating such nebulous terms as "freedom" and "fear" as adjectives rather than nouns.

The Sanders social media team shouldn't feel too bad about having a similar problem identifying "greed," "fraud," "dishonesty," and "arrogance" as nouns. And the speedy deletion of the tweet just might be enough for the campaign to avoid losing the English teacher vote.

(Hat tip, Adam Cooper.)


  1. D.O. said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    I think he meant attributes, not adjectives. Attributes can be expressed by nouns as well as adjectives. What we have is probably more or less common confusion of syntax and semantics.

  2. Lance said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

    I think he meant attributes, not adjectives.

    I don't think he did. You don't use attributes to "describe" something; if it were a malapropism for "attributes", I'd expect the tweet to say "These are just some of the adjectives we ascribe to Wall Street".

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

    I was just getting ready to type exactly what D.O. said.

  4. David L said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

    Tweet English is different from regular English, and obeys its own rules of Tweet grammar.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    If they can't get the difference between "adjective" and "noun" right, they're not likely to distinguish clearly between "describe" and "ascribe".

  6. Brian Gallagher said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

    Hmmm, The English teacher vote. Nouns acting like adjectives? (Smile!)

  7. Guy said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

    "Probably" a confusion of syntax and semantics? Is there any other explanation? Score another point for the complete failure of our schools to educate people in grammatical terminology due to blind devotion to centuries-old myths. I don't know who runs Bernie's Twitter, but they probably have an academic resume that would be considered impressive.

  8. CL Thornett said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    And it would have been so easy to use adjectives: greedy, fraudulent, dishonest, arrogant.

  9. Guy said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    It's actually pretty impressive they didn't even get one right by accident. We usually only see error rates this high when it comes to identifying passive voice.

  10. Devon Strolovitch said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    Greedy, fraudulent, dishonest, arrogant. These are just some of the adjectives we never use to describe linguists.

  11. Mark Young said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

    Hazel Rose Marks > Hazel Rose Markus

  12. Mark Young said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

    Quote from [http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/academics/psychology/Markus%20-%20Schwartz%202010%20Does%20Choice%20mean.pdf]

    In an initial look at this hypothesis, one study asked college students from working-class families and college students from middle-class families to generate three words associated with “choice.” Notably,
    both groups of students responded with a greater percentage of positive than negative associations. Yet a higher percentage of working-class students responded with “fear,” “doubt,” and “difficulty,” while more of the middle-class respondents said “freedom” and “independence” (Stephens, Fryberg, and Markus 2010).

    The word "adjective" doesn't appear in the paper, according to the search function.

  13. D.O. said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    @Guy: I meant that such confusion is probably more or less common. But, of course, there might have been some other reason as well, like editing for clarity and forgetting that part of your sentence is not coming out right anymore.

  14. DWalker said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    Bernie should have said "These are just some of the words we use to describe Wall Street". (He should have said "Wall Streeters".)

  15. JS said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    My daughter (5th grade) just bombed a test by marking attributive nouns ("chicken" in "chicken soup", etc.) as nouns rather than as adjectives as per dad's erroneous instruction. I now conclude that all of the above are indeed adjectives depending on how they're used… especially "greed" ("greed-head").

    Students of Chinese will know that that there, this kind of analysis actually makes sense since "part of speech" is to large degree a function of how particular words are employed in syntactic constructions… but I still think I was right to tell my daughter that "chicken" is pretty much a noun.

  16. Guy said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 6:40 pm


    Your daughter was right, function and lexical category are two different things, and there's good syntactic evidence that those things are still nouns – when they are phrases, not words, they are nominals, not adjective phrases (in "black bean soup", it would be crazy to call "black bean" an adjective phrase – does that make "black" an adverb here?) But it's sadly unsurprising that she would be marked wrong. Schools shouldn't test kids on grammar anywhere beyond the absolute basics until they make sure that the educators and lesson plans actually know something beyond the absolute basics.

  17. Rubrick said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    @JS: Your daughter is right and her teacher is wrong. Sadly, it's a rare 5th grade teacher indeed who would accept the authority of something like CGEL and admit to error.

    I firmly believe that those who achieve greatness in intellectual spheres are those who made it through the gauntlet of ignorant educators more or less intact. (And hopefully found a few brilliant ones along the way.)

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

    Guy: "Score another point for the complete failure of our schools to educate people in grammatical terminology due to blind devotion to centuries-old myths."

    I learned those centuries-old myths in school and I had no trouble telling that the words in question were nouns, not adjectives.

  19. JS said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    Yeah, so I had been looking at some sheet of exercises and told her to follow her intuition and mark "chicken soup", etc., as both nouns on the test… though I should have smelled out that is not what was wanted.

    Another thing is that explaining to your kid that the teacher is "wrong" is usually not a winning strategy… so I just said that the discrepancy was a matter of thinking about the word "chicken" itself versus the way it was being used in "chicken soup" and left it at that.

  20. jsm said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 8:25 pm

    You can write anything on Slate.

  21. Riikka said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 6:26 am

    In my uncle's old (Finnish) grammar book the word classes weren't named "adjective" and "noun" as today, but rather "nimisana (=name-word)", "laatusana (=quality-word)", "lukusana(number-word)", "asemosana (=placement/instead-of-word)", "teonsana" (=doing-word)" and "seikkasana (=thingy-word)". Maybe these highly technical foreign words like "adjectives" are just too difficult for simple .. erm… people like Bernie – and/or his tweeter.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    Evidently the meaning of adjective first narrowed down to "adjective used as an epithet", and then broadened to "epithet".

    My daughter (5th grade) just bombed a test by marking attributive nouns ("chicken" in "chicken soup", etc.) as nouns rather than as adjectives as per dad's erroneous instruction. I now conclude that all of the above are indeed adjectives depending on how they're used… especially "greed" ("greed-head").

    Chicken soup and greed-head are compound nouns just like teabag or firecracker. The space in the middle of chicken soup is simply one of the many lies that are traditional in English spelling. :-)

  23. Lazar said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    @JS: With respect, I find that approach disheartening. The teacher was wrong, and in the future she'll almost certainly have other teachers who are wrong on various points – you might as well be open with her about this. God knows, I was bringing in outside sources to argue against my teachers as early as 3rd grade.

  24. Ethan said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    Not that it applies to the soup example, but I wonder if there is agreement that "chicken" is an adjective in "He was too chicken to jump over the hedge"? Or is it to be interpreted as a noun from an elided clause "He was too [much like a] chicken …"?

  25. BZ said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 3:28 pm

    Sort of like "predicate" in English became "verb" some time while I was in school (1993 or so). The subject is still not called "noun" for obvious reasons, but why would a perfectly good word like "predicate" be replaced by a word that could be ambiguous?

  26. Geoff said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    # Ethan, David M

    At risk of being corrected by a genuine grammarian:
    – words can indeed belong to more than one word class (aka part of speech), in the sense that a single spoken or written object may be an X in one context and a Y in another context
    – In 'too chicken to jump over a hedge', 'chicken is indeed an adjective, as shown by the fact that it satisfies core tests of adjective-hood, eg ablity to be prefaced by 'too/very', made comparative or superlative with 'more/most', function as the complement of a copula ('He was chicken').
    – In chicken soup, 'chicken' arguably does not satisfy core tests of adjectivehood (*I don't like that brand of soup – it's too chicken; *This soup is more chicken than that one; *This soup is chicken). [note 1] So it makes more sense to say 1. it's a noun; 2. nouns, like adjectives, can modify nouns

    note 1. Maybe these sentences could pass idiomatically as meaning 'chicken flavoured'. I mean: *I don't like that brand of soup – it's too [made-of-chicken], etc

  27. Geoff said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    JS: 'explaining to your kid that the teacher is "wrong" is usually not a winning strategy.'
    I respectfully suggest that explaining to your kid that teachers may be wrong is a good strategy.
    It's true that *calling out* authority figures when they're wrong (particularly when they have power over you) is usually not a winning strategy. But that's different. Being diplomatic doesn't mean accepting that the teacher is right.

  28. Guy said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

    @David Marjanović

    I agree that "greed-head" is best analyzed as a compound word, but "chicken soup" is one entry in a completely productive array of possibilities that can take any nominal in the "chicken" slot with systematic changes in meaning. I think it's better regarded as falling in the realm of syntax, not morphology.

  29. Mark S said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

    In "chicken soup", "chicken" is clearly an noun; though I've had arguments with well-educated people about it. There are trickier cases, particularly with -"ing" words. For example, "living room" versus "living daylights" or "waiting room" versus "waiting parents" (waiting to adopt).

    My rule is that if the first word is an adjective, it makes sense to say <word 2> is/are <word 1>; whereas if the first word is a noun, it makes sense to say <word 2> of/for/with etc. <word 1>. Thus "living room" is a room for living, thus noun; but "living daylights" are daylights that are living.

    I once wrote an article about this, facetiously titled "My barge is horse".

  30. Ray said,

    February 23, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

    in the bernie sanders tweet, it's as though "adjective" is used to mean "epithet," which (both literally and rhythmically) overwhelmingly feels adjectival.

  31. JS said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 12:24 am

    Can't object to any of the comments above. I suppose I just didn't feel the need to insist on this particular point because (1) the important thought-problem (lexical categories vs. syntactic roles, if in less technical terms) wound up well-stewed-upon; (2) the concern in the case of English with category as distinct from role is mirrored by a more recent concern in the case of other languages (I am thinking of Sinitic and Maori; there must be others) with lexical category as in large part an unhelpful imposition and with what are variously called "phrases" or "constructions" as the more useful fundamental units of analysis. Or maybe (2) is still (1)… the nature of the thought-problem seemed worth emphasizing over its particular solution with respect to English, a solution towards which my daughter's intuition had already faithfully led her anyway ("chickens" but [generally] not "chickener", etc.).

  32. Usually Dainichi said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    @Mark S: Thus "living room" is a room for living, thus noun

    Just curious, are gerunds (such as "living" in "a room for living") always analyzed as nouns in English? I ask because in many other languages it's more common to have infinitives in this role. And inifitives are usually not analyzed as being able to be nouns. Noun phrases, maybe, but not nouns.

    I mean, take "reading lamp". A lamp for reading. Reading=noun? Maybe. A lamp for reading books. Reading=noun? I don't think so. It seems the distinction between gerund and present participle isn't completely trivial in English.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    That there may be blurry situations in applying the traditional part-of-speech categories doesn't mean there aren't clearcut situations, such as those that make Sanders' tweet a clearcut error. I find it interesting only insofar as it turns out to be a bit difficult to figure out what led to the error, with none of the speculative hypotheses advanced above seeming that compelling to me — even though I certainly strongly lean toward "momentary lapse from lucidity" rather "never learned the distinction during K-12 education" as the big-picture explanation. Interestingly enough, I have seen Sanders supporters on social media claiming that the whole thing is obviously a hoax propagated by the Koch Bros. and/or the Clinton campaign to make their man look bad, because "everyone occasionally makes silly mistakes when speaking or typing, and everyone who knows anything about twitter knows it's a genre where things often get 'published' without rigorous proofreading and copyediting" is apparently not the first defense that springs to mind.

  34. Guy said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

    @Usually Dainichi

    It's important to distinguish between the subcategory of what CGEL calls gerund-participial clauses that are commonly called gerunds, which are clauses, and so-called "gerundial nouns", which are deverbal nouns zero-derived from ing forms.

    For example, in "killing mice is a common activity for cats", "killing mice" is a clause. In "I was left uneasy by the killing of the mouse by the cat", "the killing of the mouse by the cat" is a noun phrase. As CGEL notes, there are some constructions – mostly partially fossilized and idiomatic – that straddle the boundary, such as "after that, there'll be no stopping him". Gerund-participial claused lare also slightly nounlike in that the subject can sometimes be genitive case, especially in formal style.

  35. Mark S said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 10:21 pm

    @Usually Dainichi: take "reading lamp". A lamp for reading. Reading=noun? Maybe. A lamp for reading books

    I'm only an amateur linguist, but I'd say Yes. It's a little different from my examples, because "read" is a transitive verb, unlike "wait" and "live". Another hint that's a noun is that the stress is on "reading", rather than "lamp". I'm not sure if it counts as a gerund there, but it is in "Reading (books) can be dangerous", so I'd guess that it is. Anyway, if it's not a noun in "reading lamp", what else could it reasonably be?

    It's a bit contrived to make "reading" an adjective modifying a noun, but "Most of the boys in the library were playing noisily, but one reading child was quiet".

  36. JS said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    I was inspired to track this down in the curriculum — Grammar Town, from Royal Fireworks Press ("Publishers for Gifted and Talented Children" :/), first edition (2003). The author takes great care to distinguish between "parts of speech" and the "parts of the sentence", but nonetheless gives things like "summer heat" (p. 44) and "ticket booth" (p. 58) as adjective + noun. So it's not on the teacher… and the book is on the whole unobjectionable. Maybe this point has been corrected in newer editions.

  37. Usually Dainichi said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 12:23 am

    @Mark S: if it's not a noun in "reading lamp", what else could it reasonably be?

    Actually, I wasn't saying that it isn't a noun in "reading lamp", but I was questioning whether it is in "a lamp for reading", since it feels much more like a verb to me, especially when you consider "a lamp for reading books".

    To answer your question, I guess it could be part of the (compound) noun "reading lamp", and and such, it might not make sense to ask about its POS in isolation at all, just as you wouldn't POS-tag "cran" in "cranberry". "Reading lamp" is obviously one lexicalized item, which just happens to be written as two orthographic words..

  38. Mike Maxwell said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    @JS: I have to agree with Geoff on his comment re "explaining to your kid that the teacher is 'wrong' is usually not a winning strategy." Part of a good education is realizing that authorities can be wrong, on many levels. I once taught generative syntax at a university in Ecuador. One of the early homework assignments was to show why the analysis of dative shift in the textbook was wrong. I gave hints, and the better students got it; but all the students, without exception, were flabbergasted that the textbook might be wrong. I always considered that the best lesson I taught.

  39. Eneri Rose said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    Regarding JS's daughter – Firstly, I'm still a big fan of diagraming sentences. I think the teacher was looking for the function of the word, in which case I would say that soup is a noun and chicken is an adjective modifying the noun. This is how I would have would diagramed it.

    Secondly, the teachable point there is that the "right" answer in a test or homework assignment is the one the teacher wants. This can be quite different from the right answer in the absolute. Dad would have done well to guide daughter through the thought process of determining what the lesson was trying to teach and what answer the teacher was looking for. This kind of analysis would serve daughter well through all levels of schooling and through career work assignments.

  40. Mark S said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    @Usually Dainichi: I don't want to seem argumentative, but I don't see why it's obvious that "reading lamp" is one lexicalized item any more than "reading glasses", "reading room", or "reading material" are.

    Since it's so productive as an adjunct, it seems similar to what @Guy said above about it being better to treat "chicken soup" as being in the realm of syntax, not morphology.

  41. Colin said,

    February 28, 2016 @ 11:25 am

    I thought 'life insurance company shareholder' and so were just typical examples of the good old Germanic compound noun – it's just that the convention in English is usually to leave spaces between elements of the compound, whereas other Germanic languages would write it as a single word. Since compounds like this can be formed ad hoc, I wouldn't necessarily describe the whole compound as a lexical unit – it's more a kind of nested subordination, where each noun is subordinate to the one after it and only the last noun interacts with the rest of the sentence.

  42. Jonathan Burdick said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 4:14 pm


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