Noun or Adjective?

Is that a wool sweater or a woolen sweater? What to do when you could use an attributive noun or an adjective.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #361

Attributive Nouns Can Cause Ambiguity

Sometimes though, using the attributive noun or the adjective can cause ambiguity.  Both “silk” and “wood” are nouns, full adjectives, and have the adjective forms “silken” and “wooden.” Sometimes “silken” or “wooden” is the best choice, and sometimes “silk” or “wood” is the best choice.

For example, if I talk about a silken blouse, I could mean a blouse that is made of silk or a blouse that just feels like silk. In that case, if it’s really made of silk, it is better to call it a silk blouse.

On the other hand, if I’m talking about a bench made from wood, it’s better to use the longer adjective form “wooden” and call it a wooden bench. If I called it a wood bench, you might think it is a bench for woodworking.

So as you can see, with nouns, attributive nouns, and adjectives, the choice is up to you (there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “wool sweater”), but you have to consider your words on a case-by-case basis and make sure your meaning is clear.

Nouns That Aren't Used as Adjectives

As a final aside, I also thought it was fascinating to consider nouns that are never used attributively. A few that Gove mentioned were “abyss,” “accomplice,” and "abdomen.” If you can think of others, leave them in the comments.

Note: “Woolen” is the typical American spelling. Dictionaries note that “woollen” is a British spelling.


1. Gove. P. “Noun Often Attributive” and “Adjective.” American Speech
Vol. 39, No. 3 (Oct., 1964), pp. 163-175. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/453624?uid=3739824&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101935871711 (accessed March 27, 2013).
2. “cotton.” Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, with first update  Merriam-Webster, Incorporated http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/cotton (accessed March 27, 2013).
3. “avocado.’ Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, with first update Merriam-Webster, Incorporated http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/avocado (accessed March 27, 2013).
4. “wood.” Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, with first update Merriam-Webster, Incorporated http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/wood (accessed March 27, 2013).


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.