Today we look at how to use substantive nouns: The brave and the free, the young and the old, the Maltese and the Welsh. How do these words that are usually adjectives suddenly look and behave as if they were nouns? Read more to find out!

This lesson is aimed at students learning English at Upper-Intermediate level or above.

It’s not uncommon to have words in English with more than one function. A lot of words have a different word structure for the adjective, noun and verb forms (ex. creative, creativity and create) and a lot of words have the same word structure, which in different contexts can be both a noun and a verb form (ex. text, drink). However, with the words above (and others) the word can change its form by simply adding the definite article ‘the’.

the + brave = the brave

So, by adding ‘the’ to the word ‘brave’ you get ‘the brave’. This refers to a group of people. The adjective is now considered to be a substantive noun. Generally speaking, substantive nouns are used for two main purposes:

  1. To refer to groups of people in society
    • The poor are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer.
    • The land of the free and the home of the brave.
    • In many ways, the young have a lot to learn from the old.
  2. To refer to nationalities
    • The Maltese are famous for their hospitality.
    • Paper was invented by the Chinese.
    • When you go to Prague, make sure to try some of their beer. The Czechs are famous for it.

There are a few things that you should consider when using substantive nouns.

1. Any of these substantive nouns can be replaced by removing the article and writing people after.

the Chinese + the – people = Chinese people

  • In many ways, the young have a lot to learn from the old. = In many ways, young people have a lot to learn from old people.
  • The Maltese are famous for their hospitality. = Maltese people are famous for their hospitality.

2. We can’t use substantive nouns to talk about one person. Substantive nouns always used for a group of people. In fact, nationalities are often used to make generalisations about people from a certain country or to talk about stereotypes.

3. A lot of nationality words can be used in their plural form, particularly ones ending in -ian, -an, -n, as well as many ‘irregular’ nationalities (i.e. those that don’t end in -ish, -ese, -ian, -an, -n). Some examples include the Americans, the Argentinians, the Czechs, the Poles and the Turks.

4. Remember that substantive nouns are always followed by a plural verb.

Besides their main uses as described above, substantive nouns can be found as titles of books, film and musicals. Some popular examples include The Twits, by Roald Dahl, a famous British author; The Incredibles, a popular animation movie, The Long and the Short and the Tall, a play by Willis Hall and The Miserable, commonly known as Les Misérables, a popular musical.

Now that you have a better understanding of substantive nouns and their uses, if you have any comments, tips or tricks on how you learn and memorise substantive nouns, please feel free to leave a comment below. Make sure to check out our videos for a fuller explanation, given by our CELTA-qualified teachers.

Discover more of Maltalingua’s free English lessons. Explore more about irregular verbs here.

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