4

I read a sentence from an authoritative grammar book that adjective can be a subject, but the usage is using the pairs of adjective, for instance,

wet or dry will make little difference

But later I found a sentence in website:

Unforgettable were her eyes that shone like diamonds and lips held in a steady smile.

my question are:

  1. Can a single adjective be a subject?
  2. Is the second sentence correct?
3
  • 3
    Your first example is a kind of omission used in informal English. The subject is omitted, but still implied from the context. The second is different. It's an example of anastrophe (inversion used in poetic language).
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 3, 2023 at 16:04
  • Your "wet or dry" example isn't really using a pair of adjectives as the syntactic subject. It's "reduced" from some underlying contextually-licenced adverbial usage, such as [You] sanding wet or dry makes little difference, OR an adjectival usage, such as [You] using wet or dry sandpaper makes little difference Jan 3, 2023 at 16:04
  • I think you can. Similarly with an adverb as in "Slowly is the only way to cook it".
    – BillJ
    Jan 3, 2023 at 19:35

5 Answers 5

10

That isn't actually using an adjective as a subject. It's just an inversion of "Her eyes that shone like diamonds and her lips held in a steady smile were unforgettable."

This kind of inversion is sometimes used for poetic effect, for example in the song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" or to make writing seem more old-fashioned.

1
  • or "Weary is the trial that pits hawk against canary" Jan 4, 2023 at 8:09
8
  1. Can a single adjective be a subject?

Yes. English allows adjective nominalization, that is, the use of an adjective as a noun. You usually see this with “the,” as in “the rich,” “the poor,” though not always. In such cases, there is a sense that there is a noun involved, it’s just being skipped because it’s obvious or generic, as in, “the rich [people],” and so on.

The way bases in baseball are referred to is a form of this, too: “he ran to first [base].” There, “base” isn’t generic, but it is obvious in context. We also see that “the” is not strictly necessary, though it is common.

I read a sentence from an authoritative grammar book that adjective can be a subject, but the usage is using the pairs of adjective, for instance,

wet or dry will make little difference

Your first sentence falls into this pattern. It might be read as “Wet [state] or dry [state] will make little difference.” The fact that there are two of them is irrelevant; one could easily have said “This is usually done wet, but dry will make little difference,” or something like that.

But later I found a sentence in website:

Unforgettable were her eyes that shone like diamonds and lips held in a steady smile.

In your second sentence, “Unforgettable” is not an example of a nominalized adjective. It is not being used as a noun, it is being used as an adjective, and it properly modifies a noun (phrase): “eyes” and “lips.” The verb “to be” in its various forms (is, are, was, were, etc.) can link a noun (phrase): for instance, if we say “The man is tall,” “tall” is being used as an adjective modifying “man,” and there is nothing unusual about this. The verb “to be” is also capable of reversing its order without changing the meaning, though this is much less common. So “Tall is the man” would sound a bit odd, but it’s perfectly grammatical and understandable.

  1. Is the second sentence correct?

Yes, though it is not what you thought it was. This is fairly poetic text, and poetry often uses unusual structures and formats. The unusual format of the sentence would draw notice from an English speaker, perhaps cause them to think about the sentence more than they would if it were more “straightforward.” Also, various famous quotations in this format would be known to most English speakers, so it is following that tradition. (This approach is also famously used in the Star Wars franchise to make Yoda sound alien and mysterious, but also wise, since he speaks in a way that is very unusual, but also correct.)

1

Adjectives can definitely be used as subjects. Consider:

Poor is what we were; rich is what we wished to be.
You want to talk about crazy? Crazy made him unemployable, and that's not his fault.

Each of those subjects is an adjective, and though all are certainly acceptable there are several things to note:

  • The adjective as subject works better in the passive voice.
  • The tone is poetic or archaic, maybe both. We don't really talk like this these days except for variety, to put on airs, or for humorous effect.
  • There is a level of convolution to this that will likely risk abandoning clarity or inviting requests for clarification.
  • Unless you're really good at writing, don't try this in school. Even then you might elicit objections.
1
  • We were poor; we wished to be rich. I was idle. These are examples of the inversion mentioned in other answers. The sentences with "crazy", on the other hand, are in an informal register where indeed "crazy" can be used in place of "craziness." I wouldn't necessarily recommend such a sentence structure with any arbitrary adjective, though.
    – David K
    Jan 4, 2023 at 13:42
0

The following parts of speech can serve as sentence subjects: Nouns, Pronouns, Gerunds, and Infinitives. Technically, gerunds and infinitives are not one of the 8 parts of speech, but they usually function as nouns. Examples:

Swimming is a great sport. [Swimming is often used as a verb, but here swimming is the subject and works like a noun.]

To err is human. [This aphorism, or proverbial phrase, might sound awkward if written with the gerund "Erring is human." The infinitive works clearly]

0

Your first example has nothing at all to do with adjectives specifically. It is not an instance of adjective nominalization, as another answer suggests. You could equally well say, in the appropriate context:

Over or under will make little difference.

or

Could or should is a big difference.

Does that mean that prepositions and modal verbs are subjects of these sentences, or that they are being nominalized? No, it simply means that they stand in for some other phrase, for example

Going over and going under 50 mph will make little difference.

or

Whether we could or whether we should do this is a big difference.

The second example is, as others have pointed out, a simple inversion. The non-inverted form of the sentence is

Her eyes that shone like diamonds and lips held in a steady smile were unforgettable.

or more explicitly

Her eyes that shone like diamonds and lips that were held in a steady smile were unforgettable.

To answer your other question, adjectives can certain act as subjects of sentences, and in that case they are indeed nominalized, i.e. function as nouns. For example:

The big eat the small.

There is no "implied" noun here. We could be talking about people, animals, companies, or blobs of color in some computer game.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .