The Grammarphobia Blog

Foreign correspondence

Q: I have a question about the words “abroad” and “overseas.” Are they only adjectives and adverbs? Or can they act as nouns too? Example: “The tourists prefer abroad/overseas,” or “The players are from abroad/overseas.”

A: They’re usually seen as either adverbs (“He lives abroad/overseas”) or adjectives (“He’s popular with readers abroad/overseas”).

Can they be nouns too? We’ll get to that later.

Interestingly, these two words are interchangeable as adverbs, but not always as adjectives.

In modern American English, “abroad” is seldom used as an adjective BEFORE a noun.

For example, an American would say, “He’s had overseas experience,” but not “abroad experience.”

We should mention, however, that this pre-noun adjectival use of “abroad” is sometimes heard in British English.

Now, let’s look at the question of whether “abroad” and “overseas” are nouns. We’ll take them one at a time.

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK disagree about whether “abroad” is a noun.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says yes, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no entry for the usage.

The two standard British dictionaries we’ve checked, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the British version of the Macmillan Dictionary, don’t have entries for the noun usage either. 

In our experience, however, we’ve noticed that some British speakers (though few Americans) do use “abroad” as a noun.

And the Oxford English Dictionary does have a noun entry for “abroad,” with several citations, all of them apparently from British writers.

Here’s one via the bigoted Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love (1945):

“ ‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’ ”

In fact, American Heritage’s example of the noun usage (“Do you like abroad or hate it?”) comes from another British author, John le Carré. 

Now on to “overseas,” which none of the standard dictionaries we’ve named, whether American or British, consider a noun.

The OED, however, does consider it a noun, though all but two of the citations include the word as part of the phrase “from overseas.” Here are the exceptions:

1926, from Arnold Bennett’s novel Lord Raingo: “Britons whose secret conceit, compared to the ingenuous self-complacency of overseas, was as Mount Everest to Snowdon.”

1984, from the Sunday Times of Johannesburg: “Both revolve around how terrible it is to live in South Africa when ‘overseas’ appears to offer a brighter future.”

Although a case can be made for using “abroad” and “overseas” as nouns in the classic sense (“We prefer abroad/overseas to the states”), we find this usage jarring.

As for the phrase “from abroad,” it’s our opinion (and the opinion of the OED) that the word “abroad” is functioning as an adverb in a sentence like “She flew from abroad.”

We also think “overseas” is functioning as an adverb in the phrase “from overseas,” but the OED disagrees with us and considers it a noun in a sentence like “His aunt is visiting from overseas.”

Check out our books about the English language