Using “the” with an adjective and no noun can very occasionally refer to a specific thing
THE ABILITY OF SOME ENGLISH ADJECTIVES TO HAVE NO NOUN
A major characteristic of English adjectives is their association with nouns (see, for example, 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”, 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun and 184. Adjectives with Restricted Positioning). Sometimes, however, an English adjective can be used without an accompanying noun. A previous post (6. Adjectives with no Noun 1) shows how this is mostly done to name a general group of people who possess the characteristic expressed by the adjective, as in the poor (= poor people), the elderly and the educated.
In this post I wish to examine another way of using adjectives without an accompanying noun. Again we usually find the in front, but this time the adjective describes a single thing rather than a general group of people, like this:
(a) It is sometimes necessary to consider the unthinkable.
The understood meaning here is something like “idea” or “action”. This sort of use is not a possibility with many adjectives, but it is important to know about nonetheless, not least because it may help the adjectives involved not to be confused with the many adjectives that cannot be used in the same way.
SITUATIONS WHERE ENGLISH CAN NAME SOMETHING WITH JUST AN ADJECTIVE
Some languages other than English are much more able to use a nounless adjective to refer to a single person or thing. In French, for example, one can say “the responsible” where English would have to say the person responsible. In Spanish there is a special form of “the” that can be used with nounless adjectives, so that one could say, for example, “the strange” where English would have to say the strange thing. Speakers of languages that allow such things are probably the most likely to use English adjectives incorrectly without a noun.
There are various correct ways of using a nounless adjective in English to refer to an individual thing. I do not include among them expressions like the red (= “debt”), the black (= “credit”) and the dark (= “ignorance”), where words that are usually adjectives have actually become nouns.
1. Particular Kinds of Comparative and Superlative Adjective
Superlative adjectives nearly always need the (for situations where they do not, see 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons). Sometimes there is an accompanying noun (e.g. the earliest records) and sometimes there is not. For there to be no noun, the superlative will usually be in a typical sentence position of nouns (subject, object, complement or after a preposition), and the absent noun will be discoverable from the surrounding words. Consider these examples:
(b) The options were surveyed and the most suitable was selected.
(c) The fastest of all the times was recorded.
In both of these sentences, the lone superlative adjective is the subject of a verb. Their understood nouns are of course option and time. The former is indicated by the earlier options; the latter by the subsequent times. This kind of word-dropping is the same as that discussed extensively in the post 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition.
Comparative adjectives can be used alone after the in the same way. In (b), for example, the most suitable (suggesting at least two less suitable alternatives) could be replaced by the more suitable (suggesting only one). Adjectives that are not in the comparative or superlative forms, however, cannot drop their noun: they would have to either repeat it or use the pronoun (a/the) one – a suitable one in (b) (see 63. Constraints on Using “the one[s]”).
A few comparative and superlative adjectives can also be used with a dropped noun that is not discoverable from the surrounding words. They tend to be in fixed idiomatic phrases. Examples are for the better/best, suffer the worst, know the worst, hear the latest, do one’s best/worst, try one’s utmost/hardest, at its -est.
2. Adjectives after the preposition “in”
Prepositions, like adjectives, usually have to be accompanied by a noun (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). However, in a few fixed phrases – usually starting with in – English uses a lone adjective instead of the expected noun. Examples are in brief, in full, in general, to the full and for good (= “permanently”). More are listed in the post 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs).
3. Occasional Individual Adjectives
A small, seemingly rather random group of adjectives can be used without a noun to express an idea like “thing”, “idea”, “information”, action, “event”, “situation”, “person” or “place”. They include the unthinkable, the unknown, the unknowable, the unexpected, the unseen, the unusual, the impossible, the Almighty, the wild and the above, as well as the underlined ones in the fixed phrases from the sublime to the ridiculous and out of the ordinary.
Note, though, that when a more specific or precise meaning has to be expressed, words like this will need a following noun, as in this example:
(d) Most of the presentation was conventional enough; the unexpected part was the conclusion.
ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS OF LONE ADJECTIVES IN OTHER LANGUAGES
When another language uses a lone adjective, English is unlikely to be able to do the same. What, then, should one do in English instead? There seem to be three possible solutions: adding an abstract noun like part or point; replacing the adjective with a noun; or using what is/was. In the first case, the added noun is usually one of a particular small group, the selection depending each time on the adjective being added to (in other words, the nouns and adjectives form collocations, a full explanation of which can be downloaded from the Learning Materials section of this blog).
In informal speech, typical nouns are thing or bit (e.g. the ridiculous thing, the difficult bit). Readers might like to try and predict the more formal nouns usable after the following adjectives:
1. The logical … is that it cannot be done.
2. The logical … is to experiment with different alternatives.
3. The high … was the tour of the island.
4. The important … is that everyone is to blame.
5. The easy … was attending the lectures.
6. The obvious … is to make a complaint.
7. Winning a trophy was the defining … for the team.
8. The … responsible for the action should come forward.
9. The easiest … to do is start again.
Answers: 1 = conclusion; 2 = course/action; 3 = point; 4 = point; 5 = part/option; 6 = step/solution; 7 = moment; 8 = person; 9 = thing (this, however, is rather informal. Better is to change thing to do into option or step).
Other typical adjectives are:
With conclusion: necessary, inevitable, painful.
With course: suitable, appropriate, desirable, best.
With point: central, essential, key, main, interesting.
With part: interesting, enjoyable, pleasing, boring, difficult, hard, painful, depressing, encouraging, strange, best.
With step: suitable, appropriate, desirable, logical, necessary, next.
In some sentences, a suitable added noun is not easy to think of, and completely replacing the adjective with a noun becomes a better strategy. For example, a very suitable noun instead of high in sentence 3 above is highlight. What nouns might replace the following (answers below)?
1. The urgent … is to stay safe
2. The surprising … was that nobody was killed.
3. The necessary … is to isolate new cases.
4. The difficult … in language learning is to maintain motivation.
5. The good … of eggs is their protein.
6. The certain … is that drug-taking brings only misery.
1 = The priority; 2 = The surprise; 3 = The need; 4 = The challenge; 5 = The benefit; 6 = The certainty
Finally, what is or what was can be placed before an adjective. Most of the above sentences allow this (the exceptions are 3, 7, 8 in the first exercise). However, doing so is probably not advisable if one of the other two strategies is possible since it is more wordy.