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The word "substantive"  comes from the Latin words sub + sto (stans, stantis...), and literally means "standing in place of." A substantive is an adjective that doesn't  modify a noun, but replaces the noun:

"The meek shall inherit the earth." 

"Meek" is an adjective. In this sample sentence, what noun is "meek" modifying? It isn't modifying anything. It really stands for "meek somethings," which we automatically fill in as "people". Here's another one (provide sound effects as you wish):

"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

The good, the bad, and the ugly what? Men, of course. We just automatically fill it in. In Latin, it is slightly more complicated (or more precise, actually), since the adjective will have not only case, but also number and gender. So if you see bonus vir you know it means "a good man" but so does "bonus" all by itself. Bona could mean "a good woman" if it were in the nominative, but more probably would refer to "good things" and be found in the nominative/accusative neuter plural. Multi means "many" as in "many people" and multa means "many things."

Sometimes the context of a sentence can provide the correct translation of a substantive: 

"I like small tables, but you like big ones"
parvas mensas amo, sed magnas amas

Here, you don't default to "feminine plural things = women" because there is a feminine noun in the sentence to which this adjective refers. magnas simply replaces parvas mensas in the same context, = "big tables". You only default to "man, woman, or ting" if there is no clue in the sentence suggesting a specific and precise translation.

So how can you tell if you have a substantive or just a regular adjective? See if the adjective agrees with a noun - in case, number, and gender - if it does, then translate them together. If an adjective appears to be sitting there all by itself - and you need a noun for subject or object or whatever - then try translating it as a substantive. If it doesn't agree with ANY noun in the sentence (see example above), then default to generic terms (men, women, things) to translate the three genders.

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 06/29/2005
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