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I was watching a movie (native speakers) and I noticed this sentence:

'She was having a pretend conversation on the phone...'

Is it grammatically correct? I checked the word "pretend" with Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary - it said "pretend" only exists in verb form. I couldn't find any other cases of using a verb + a noun to form a noun phrase like this.

I think it should be constructed thus: verb with -ing or -ed + noun = noun phrase. Am I right? Alternatively, if the speaker is right, please enlighten me and give me some examples in which this kind of grammar applies.

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  • @sumelic No, my OALD (4th ed.) does not seem to carry that definition: there are only 3, all as verbs. – Cascabel Jul 14 '17 at 19:03
  • The dictionary showed me only 1 form of "pretend" and it's "v" with only 2 examples of how to use it in verb form :( – CuteLad Jul 14 '17 at 19:04
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    The conversation was pretend - 'pretend' describes the conversation. As a native speaker, that construction is fine but I'm not sure about exactly why! – marcellothearcane Jul 15 '17 at 20:47
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    @marcellothearcane Correct, but I can't really explain why either. It's also like how children "play pretend". – Dog Lover Jul 23 '17 at 9:56
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"A pretend conversation" is grammatically correct. People who are inclined to call any word that can be placed before a noun to modify its meaning an "adjective" classify pretend as an adjective when it is used like this; I'm not sure about this classification, but you can think of it that way if you find it helpful. The division between parts of speech can often seem blurry in English; pretend can also be used as a noun.

The online version of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary seems to have a definition of pretend as an adjective:

pretend adjective

imaginary or not real:

  • "Do you want a cup of tea?" she asks, offering me a pretend cup.
  • They knew the argument was only pretend, but they still got upset."

Pretend doesn't behave exactly like a typical adjective though. It can also be used as a noun, as in "they were playing pretend." (I found mention of this in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

I would say it is definitely no more of an adjective than the word fun. Like fun, pretend can be used:

  • as an uncountable noun: "You mustn't be afraid of pretend" (1965 G. McInnes Road to Gundagai iii. 54, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary)
  • as a predicate after a form of to be: "It was all pretend"
  • as an attributive word modifying a following noun: "a pretend conversation" (your example)

Pretend is not like a normal adjective mainly in that it is not "gradable":

  • We can't add the adjective suffixes -er or -est to pretend

  • People also don't say things like "very pretend"

Actually, this probably makes it less of an adjective than fun ( "funner" and "funnest" are stigmatized, but have some use, and "very fun" does exist for some people, although other people find it ungrammatical).

Another similar word is make-believe. This also started out as a verb, but is now also used as an uncountable noun, as a predicate after be, and as an attributive "adjective":

  • the children made believe they were doctors
  • She squandered millions on a life of make-believe.
  • The violence in those films was too unreal, it was make-believe.
  • 'But, why?' he asked in make-believe astonishment.

(Example sentences from the Collins English Dictionary)

  • Oh man, so which offline dictionary should I use to get me out of confusing situations like this ? I think I've experienced this before. Really annoying ! your make-believe reminded me of Sony's slogan – CuteLad Jul 14 '17 at 19:13
  • @CuteLad: Sorry, I'm not sure because I only use online dictionaries nowadays! I have heard good things about the American Heritage Dictionary in chat. – sumelic Jul 14 '17 at 19:17
  • @CuteLad It's best to go for online dictionaries if you can, because they're updated frequently. – NVZ Jul 15 '17 at 5:18

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