Using “the” with an adjective and no noun most often gives the general meaning of “people who are …”
THE LINK BETWEEN ADJECTIVES AND NOUNS
Adjectives normally accompany nouns (or noun substitutes like pronouns). In the following examples, the adjectives are underlined, and the nouns they accompany are easily seen.
(a) Educated people have a duty to help others.
(b) Some ideas are difficult to understand.
In (a), the adjective educated accompanies the nearby noun people, and in (b) difficult accompanies ideas. In (a), the adjective is directly before its noun, and in (b) it is after and separated by a linking verb. These are the normal positions of adjectives, though others are sometimes possible too, for example directly after the noun, as in the diagram below (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).
More on the characteristics of adjectives is in the Guinlist posts 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning and 98. “Very”, “Much” & “Very Much”. Other adjective posts can be accessed by clicking on ADJECTIVES in the “Categories” Menu on the right of this page.
WAYS OF USING AN ADJECTIVE WITHOUT A NOUN
A further way of using some (but not all) adjectives is without any noun at all, like this:
(c) Sometimes it is necessary to consider the unthinkable.
(d) The educated have a duty to help others.
There is no visible noun before or after either of these underlined adjectives, yet they are still describing something. In (c) it is something like “idea”, while in (d) it is “people”. Sentence (d), in fact, means the same as (a) above. It is sentences of this kind, where the unmentioned noun is “people”, that are the particular focus of this post. The use shown by (c) is considered in the post 102. Adjectives with no Noun (2): Thing-Naming.
REQUIREMENTS FOR AN ADJECTIVE TO REPRESENT A GROUP OF PEOPLE
There are four important points to note about adjectives used without a noun as in (d):
1. There is always the in front: you cannot say *Educated have a duty to help others or *An educated has a duty to help others. This is an unusual use of the – for some others, see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns, 89. Using “the” with General Meaning and 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”.
2. The combination is grammatically plural even though there is no -s on the adjective (only nouns can show plural meaning with -s). This means that when the + ADJECTIVE is the subject of a verb, the verb too must be in a plural form – have in (d), not has (see 12. Singular and Plural Verbs for a full discussion of subject-verb “agreement”).
3. The reference is to a group of people, not any other kind of group.
4. The meaning is general, not specific (in the sense outlined in the post 89. Using “the” with General Meaning). If you mean specific educated people, you must say the educated ones/people instead of the educated (e.g. The educated ones are standing outside).
Other examples where the + ADJECTIVE stands for a general group of people are the poor, the famous, the elderly and the elite.
Care is needed with elite because it is not just an adjective but also a countable noun meaning “privileged group of people”. Compare the following meanings:
the elite (adj) = privileged people (general)
the elite (noun) = a specific identified group of privileged people
an elite (noun) = (a) any group of privileged people (general); (b) a specific unidentified group of privileged people
elites (noun) = (a) all privileged groups of people (general); (b) specific unidentified groups of privileged people
It is a common error to confuse the elite (adj) with elites. The latter refers to multiple groups of people, not multiple people.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: “the” + ADJECTIVE
The following exercise is designed to help interested readers to discover some more examples of the + ADJECTIVE. In each case you have to suggest an adjective with the that means the same as the given group of people (answers are given afterwards). The first has been done as an example.
1. People who are over 70 years of age = The elderly/old.
2. People who belong to France = The ________ .
3. People who cannot see with their eyes.
4. People who are no longer living.
5. People who want to do paid work but cannot find any.
6. People whose marriage has been cancelled by the state.
7. Small children whose life has just begun.
8. Those who have never learned to read and write.
9. People who need help with some major things in life.
10. People who read a lot.
11. Those who are well above average in what they can do.
12. Those who have passed 40 years of age but not yet reached 65.
Other common examples are the hungry, the fortunate, the feckless, the gullible, the illiterate, the dispossessed, the desperate, the distressed, the poverty-stricken, the super-fit, the mentally-ill, the criminally inclined, the able-bodied.
2 = The French; 3 = The blind; 4 = The dead; 5 = the unemployed; 6 = The divorced; 7 = The newborn; 8 = The uneducated; 9 = The needy; 10 = The literate; 11 = The talented/able; 12 = The middle-aged.