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In this context, 'a nice' is used as a noun as 'a must':

Design’s role has moved from a nice to have to a must have to a differentiator

I wonder if the 'indefinite article + adjective' form can idiomatically express one case of something just as we do using the 'definite article + adjective' form to express a group of something, for instance 'the artificial'? In other words, is 'an artificial' as grammatical as 'the artificial'?

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    The adjectival constructions being pressed into service here as nouns should be enclosed in "scare quotes" and/or internally bonded by hyphenation: a "nice-to-have" and a "must-have". But that's a matter of writing style and consideration for the reader - in the spoken version the speaker's intonation pattern would make it really easy to parse. Aug 26, 2023 at 10:43
  • @FumbleFingers: Not sure I'd say "should": compound terms MAY be enclosed in that way, but are more typically be separated with spaces. Aug 26, 2023 at 17:53
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    @DewiMorgan: I have no time for prescriptive grammarians in the first place, so I'd very rarely be saying someone "should" use particular linguistics devices in order to be syntactically "correct". All I meant was that if a writer wants to show consideration for his readers, and reduce the chances of his text being misunderstood, those are two devices which would be helpful in the current context.Which I thought I made clear in my first comment (it's a matter of "writing style" and "consideration"). Aug 26, 2023 at 18:07
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    @FumbleFingers Well... fine! In that case, since you clearly have the same opinion of prescriptionists as I, and my objection to your "should" lies revealed as mere kneejerk reactionism, I'm afraid I'm just going to have to agree with you completely, as I now realize I have nothing of value to contribute to this discussion! So there! Aug 26, 2023 at 23:57
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    @DewiMorgan: Well, it's nice to see all those upvotes for our comments, showing that several other users agree with our position. I'm also gratified to see that the Wiktionary usage example in Mari-Lou's answer uses both devices ("scare quotes" and hyphenation) to orthographically "set off" the collocations. Plus those ones are in bold typeface, making it really easy to see the collocation as a single unit (which syntactically, it is). Aug 27, 2023 at 10:25

5 Answers 5

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Punctuation. The expressions "nice to have" and "must have(s)" should be seen as individual units, they are both fixed phrases and we can achieve this by using hyphens.

As the physical world goes digital at a frenzied pace, and smartphones are putting technology in the hands of billions, companies have an imperative to innovate and are now competing on the power of their customer experience. Design’s role has moved from a nice-to-have to a must-have to a differentiator.

Wiktionary tells us

nice-to-have (plural nice-to-haves)

  1. (informal) A feature that a product or service being designed would ideally have, though it may be impractical at present.
    ― There's a huge gulf between “must-have” and “nice-to-have” products. If you sell a nice-to-have product, no one, not even your best friends, will use it long term. We all focus on must-haves.
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    Oh, I made some mistakes in my question! Get it! Thanks! Aug 26, 2023 at 9:34
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    @LernerZhang the "mistake" was made by the author of the piece, reading "a must to have (feature)" would trip many a reader but read aloud it becomes easier to parse.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 26, 2023 at 9:40
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In this example the whole "a nice to have" is the noun, rather than just the "a nice" part. I'd probably hyphenate it myself – "a nice-to-have" – to help clear up any ambiguity.

In general, you can't do what you're suggesting, no. It's quite natural to talk about "the unemployed" for the whole group of unemployed people ("a new law has been put in place to help the unemployed"), but if you want to talk about just one of them you do need to include a noun ("an unemployed man", "an unemployed accountant", "an unemployed person"). (There are a few exceptions I can think of; you can call someone "an Italian", but you can't call someone "a French".)

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This is Common Business Jargon in American English

As an American English speaker, I would say that this is a common phrasal pattern in business-speak. It usually implies "feature," "role," or "process" but elides those terms for simplification. As a slightly different example, consider these similar sentences:

UI design is no longer just a nice-to-have step in our process. It has become a must-have role for our process to be successful.

Your posted example is very similar. It's just very colloquial, and the word "role" is implied in several parts of the quoted phrase. Using your actual example, you can see how the word is being elided:

Design’s role [in our process] has moved from a "nice to have" [role] to a "must have" [role] to a [product/process/quality/market] differentiator [for whatever we're doing.]

In other words, the role of design has progressed from an optional-but-desirable role to a perceived business necessity, and from there to a "differentiator" (used here as a noun, but actually a descriptive adjective with an undefined target that likely refers to something business-related).

This type of phrasing is quite common in corporate America, but the lack of quotes or hyphenation make it harder to parse when written even if the meaning would be sufficiently clear when spoken. Note that when taken out of context, the lack of a clearly-defined subject for what is being elided is also problematic. However, in actual conversation the implied subject would usually be clearly understood by any participants that share a common frame of reference for the topic at hand.

Lacking a common frame of reference, culturally it would be perfectly acceptable to ask a clarifying question like:

In what way is design's role now a differentiator for us?

More succinctly, the original question isn't wrong or unusual; it's just not clear when out of context, or easy to parse when written as quoted in the original question. It's perfectly acceptable business jargon, though, and would sound natural to a native speaker when used in an informal business context.

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English is famous for allowing "verbs to be nouned and nouns to be verbed" (and that phrase itself shows it off: it takes the nouns verb and noun and uses them as verbs).

There is also a perhaps less prominent possibility in English of adjectives and adjective phrases being nouned!

One way in which this happens is when the noun is elided from a noun phrase, such that the phrase is then left only with an adjective.

For instance dirigible airship, submersible vessel, deliverable goods, perishable foods or deductible portion of insurance claim become just dirigible, submersible, deliverables, perishables and deductible—and these are all nouns.

Another adjective-to-noun process that occurs in English is when groups of people are referred by the adjective that makes them a group. In this situation, the adjective is preceded by the article the. For instance, the rich, the poor, the homeless, the brave. Again, those are nouns now, even though rich, poor and brave are adjectives. This is very similar to French: Les Misérables.

The phrase nice to have is an adjective phrase based on the nice adjective. It is normally applied to a noun such as nice-to-have requirement. The same process happens here: the noun is dropped and becomes implicit, leaving a noun, allowing us to say things like supporting multiple profiles is a nice-to-have, but we can postpone that to a later version of the software.

How it might work is that there is an understood noun, like it is a nice-to-have feature, but. That's a question for the linguists; the main point is that this is something which somehow happens in English and is grammatical.

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No. Simply, 'a nice' will never work on its own and worse, it can't really be related to 'a nice to have', simply because neither could ever be acceptable?

Part of the problem is that in no context could 'a nice' be used as a noun, even though 'a must' has sneaked into the language. They do appear grammatically identical but semantically or idiomatically, they're decades; perhaps worlds apart.

Another part might be assuming that the Posted example uses 'a nice' which it does not. The idea that it did prolly arose from seeing 'Design’s role has moved from a nice…' as meaningful by itself, which it is not, which should make it clear why the meaning relies on hyphens.

The example can only rightly be considered in the rather different form, 'Design’s role has moved from a nice-to-have to a must-have to a differentiator.' Without the hyphens, the phrase will never make sense, except by guesswork.

Don't the hyphens make it clear, 'a nice' works only as part of 'a nice-to-have…'?

That raises the separate Question, where did the example come from? If you made it up, well done, so far… If your teacher made it up, the teacher should have included an explanation… If it's a quote from somewhere else, please provide the citation.

Your later queries about articles seem be wholly separate; well deserving Questions in their own right, but not relevant here.

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    There's a link in the OP's question. Click on it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 27, 2023 at 20:13
  • @Mari-LouA Thanks and if you meant the 'In this context' link, how d'you think that useful? Aug 27, 2023 at 20:57
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    It's useful because it answers where the example comes from. If you meant the phrase "in this context" is not useful, you're right the OP should have named the source, but the quotation is correctly formatted and the link comes directly above it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 28, 2023 at 5:10
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    You can definitely have a nice. Suppose that a teacher grades homework with stamps like "super", "nice", "okay", and "poor". You can then say things like, "Johnny got a nice on his homework again; he's really bringing home those nices this week". I don't think any adjective is immune to being used as a noun.
    – Kaz
    Aug 28, 2023 at 7:39
  • Actually Kaz, you can definitely not have 'a nice' without using quotes, as you yourself found, above. Even then, the reference would be to "a ‘nice’, " not " ‘a nice’ ”. ‘Stamps’ like ‘super’, ‘nice’, ‘OK’ or ‘poor’ demand the quotes you gave them for exactly the same reason the next example should have been "Johnny got a 'nice' on his homework again; he's really bringing home those 'nices' this week". That’s why all the single quotes here are examples of ‘scare quotes’ broadly indicating that though that’s what was actually said, it shouldn’t really have been. Aug 29, 2023 at 13:56

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