On adjectives

“The adjective is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Rousseau never. He had bigger fish to fry. But give him a few hundred years, the ascension of various Creative Directors to the throne, and I’m sure he would have turned his attention to an endemic rooted in our lexicon, nay, society. For the adjective, readers, is being given a good nouning by advertisers everywhere. Stripped of its purpose, humiliated and spread thin across campaigns around the land. Here are just a few examples.

Celebrate your extraordinary.

Unlock your more.

Your best beautiful.

Generate positive.

What’s your active?

Welcome to possible.

And so on. Experimenting with grammar to get attention is nothing new; writers are tricksy beasts. And language lovers even have a word for it: Anthimeria. It involves using one part of speech as another part of speech, such as using a noun as if it were a verb. Shakespeare is the king of this:

“I’ll unhair thy head.” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, v.)

“The thunder would not peace at my bidding.” (Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi.)

And back to those chains, morphing adjectives into nouns is also as old as time itself. We have ‘the rich’, ‘the poor’, ‘the meek’ and ‘the mild’. And some adjectives have transitioned to fully-fledged nouns – ‘evil,’ for example.

Placing words into new grammatical spots as rhetorical innovation is a good thing. Language is there to evolve, to shed its skin and become something else. And the dictionary’s richer for it. But, grammar’s only a medium, and in this case I’d argue it’s not the message.

I once sat next to a woman on a bus who underwent a fitful bout of Acute Nouningitus mid-journey. As our bus pulled into a stop, another overtook us. ‘FUCK OFF!’ she cried upon seeing the below emblazoned across the overtaking 73.


She had lost her happy and then some.  She looked at me, ‘I HATE ADVERTISING’, she said. I nodded in agreement. Partly through fear. But also in agreement. If copywriting’s any good, it shouldn’t sound like copywriting. Yes, there needs to be a tone of voice but that voice needs to be a voice. Not one of the crowd, or one that immediately makes us switch off and go ‘those advertisers are at it again.’

And I think that’s the biggest problem with nouning adjectives at the moment. It’s not a grammatical issue. What’s wrong with it is that it’s making us all sound the same. Advertisers are obsessed with the new and unconventional.  So, yes, when Apple asked us all to ‘Think Different’ back in 1997 maybe it was different.  It was definitely clever – turning their product into the physical embodiment of a quality in one line. But it’s not 1997 anymore, and now it’s a convention.

For something that’s only ever had the simple wish to modify a noun or pronoun, I think it’s time to stand up for the humble adjective.  So copywriters, STEP AWAY FROM THE DESCRIBEY WORDS. Don’t just write something down because it sounds like advertising. Write something that’s real and has meaning. It takes much more than grammatical wizardry to make amazing.

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