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I used to think that "melancholy" is the name of a syndrome or condition (=being in a sad mood) and hence a noun, whereas "melancholic" is the correct adjective.
So to me it would seem correct to say:

[1]. In his later years John was suffering from melancholy.
[2]. In his later years John was often melancholic.

However, it appears melancholy can also be used as an adjective. E.g.

[3]. In his later years John was feeling melancholy.

Is it true that all three sentences are correct (American) English?
Which usage is nowadays the more common?

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Dictionaries such as Collins list melancholy as both a noun and an adjective. So we can analyze melancholy in your example as an adjective if we want to:

In his later years John was feeling melancholyadjective .

However, feel can also take a noun as a complement. Again I'll quote Collins, which gives the example "to feel anger", in which anger is clearly a noun. Since melancholy as a noun is typically uncountable, we can analyze melancholy in your example as a noun, as well:

In his later years John was feeling melancholynoun .

So which way should we analyze it? I don't think it makes a difference in terms of meaning, so I think the adjective-noun distinction collapses here. Although you can pick one category or the other, the distinction doesn't carry any meaning, so it doesn't matter.

Of course, we can come up with examples where the distinction does matter:

In his later years John felt a profound sadness.
In his later years John felt a profound melancholy.

Here we've countified the typically non-count noun melancholy. We can see that it functions like a noun, just as sadness does. And we can force it the other way, too (if you'll pardon the somewhat contrived example):

In his later years John felt profoundly sad.
In his later years John felt profoundly melancholy.

But in your example, it doesn't matter.


To answer your questions explicitly: all three of your sentences are fine, and feeling melancholic is considerably less common than feeling melancholy.

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  • Thank you. It seems to me rather peculiar that a word (melancholy) is used both as a noun and an adjective; even more so, when there is actually a perfectly reasonable adjective available (melancholic). So my follow-up question is: was there a particular reason that melancholy as an adjective came into prominence, thereby more-or-less replacing (the more logical) melancholic?
    – M. Wind
    Feb 12, 2014 at 5:34
  • The OED suggests that the noun melancholy was sometimes used attributively, and that this led to it being reanalyzed as an adjective. This makes sense, since both adjectives and nouns can appear in attributive position. I can't tell you precisely why melancholy is more popular as an adjective than melancholic; unfortunately, language is not always as logical as you might like. But perhaps, given the choice of the two, speakers went with the simpler choice.
    – user230
    Feb 12, 2014 at 5:47
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Melancholy seems like a temporary state of being while melancholic sounds like an illness. That's merely my layman's "feeling" about the words.

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    Do you have any references to back up your intuition?
    – mdewey
    Sep 6, 2020 at 12:32

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