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 Verb Choices for a full discussion of subject-verb “agreement”).
3. The reference is only to human groups: to talk about animals or things, you must include a noun, or a pronoun like ones.
4. The reference is to all of the members of a human group. To refer to fewer than all you have to put some of before the, or drop the and add the word people, e.g. Educated people were ignored.
Care is needed with elite because it is not only an adjective but also a countable noun meaning “all the elite people in a country”. As a result, the elite could be either this noun with this meaning, or the adjective use meaning “all elite people”. To talk about fewer than all, you have to say some (or members) of the elite, or elite people. You cannot say elites because in Standard English that means groups of elite people in a country, not just one group (see 175. Tricky Word Contrasts 6, #1).
Other examples where the + ADJECTIVE stands for a general group of people are the poor, the famous, the elderly and the dispossessed.
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 young, the desperate, the distressed, the poverty-stricken, the super-fit, the mentally-ill, the criminally inclined, the able-bodied, the (un)married, the suffering, the accident-prone, the wealthy.
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.