109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun


English has various features that might lead speakers of other languages to incorrectly place an adjective after its noun



The main adjective positions in English are either just before the noun they describe or after it with a linking verb like BE in between (see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1). In a few cases we also find an English adjective placed after its noun without a linking verb. It may be directly after or delayed. Most advanced grammar books list the situations where the former is necessary; this blog considers the latter in the post 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2 (#3).

In this post, following the usual Guinlist policy of not simply repeating what can be found in grammar books, I wish to analyse an instance of an adjective wrongly placed directly after its noun that I recently encountered in a tourist guidebook from the Portuguese-speaking world. I wish to show how the error is probably caused by the way English works, rather than (or as much as) by “transfer” or “interference” from Portuguese, which, like other Romance languages, usually places adjectives after rather than before nouns.



The following sentence illustrates the guidebook error that I encountered (the adjective underlined):

(a) *The region has cultural behaviours typically Portuguese.

The correct English way to say this is either to place typically Portuguese before cultural behaviours or to leave it where it is with which are in front. The main reason for suspecting that English may be partly to blame for the error is that most other adjectives used by the writer of (a) were actually in the correct positions. So what is it about English that might have caused this particular error? Three possibilities suggest themselves: the way other kinds of words can describe a noun, situations that change an adjective’s position, and the existence of some English adjectives that always follow their noun.


How Other Kinds of Words can Describe a Noun

Most verbs can be put into adjective-like form. Different aspects of this point are considered elsewhere in this blog in the posts 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning and 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”. The first of these posts illustrates how verbs in the -ing or -ed form can describe an adjacent noun just like adjectives, but emphasises that a substantial number of them can or must go after the noun rather than before, like this:

(b) One must remember the tendency previously NOTED.

Structurally, this sentence is very like (a): both comprise a subject, verb and object, and the object (underlined) comprises a noun and a following “describing” word (in capitals) separated by an adverb (previously). The reason why (b) is possible and (a) is not is that noted is a participle of the kind that can go before or after its noun, while Portuguese is an ordinary adjective. It could be that the possibility of participle usage as in (b) is what induced (a) to be written.

Preposition phrases are also able to describe a noun in an adjective-like way (See 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions), but the noun must always come first:

(c) The region has artefacts OF A SOPHISTICATED KIND.

Perhaps this kind of description also has some influence.


Situations that Change an Adjective’s Position

There are three different kinds of situation that normally require an English adjective to go directly after its noun rather than in front.


1. Describing a Pronoun Ending in “-body/-one/-thing/-where”

It is not normal for an adjective to precede any of these pronouns. Thus, sentence (a) would become correct if has cultural behaviours was replaced by is somewhere. This feature of English, however, does not seem a likely explanation of the error in (a), since the presence or absence of one of the four pronouns seems easy to remember and appreciate.


2. Acting as an Object Complement

Complements are noun phrases or adjective phrases that mean the same as, or describe, an earlier-mentioned noun phrase. They are of the “subject” kind when this earlier noun phrase is the subject of a separating equivalence verb like BE (see 113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive). “Object” complements, on the other hand, exist when the earlier noun phrase is a verb object placed immediately before them (see 92. Complement-Showing “As”).

Object complements must have a clear link with the verb before them; otherwise the grammatical structure will be one of “apposition” (see 77. Apposition). This need may be illustrated as follows:

(d) Columbus called the island he first reached San Salvador.

The verb here is called, its object is the island he first reached and the object complement is San Salvador. The complement is linked to called in the sense that omitting it would leave a grammatically incomplete sentence. This is because the verb CALL in its naming sense always needs a subject, object and object complement, in the same way that some verbs always need an object (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors) and some, like PUT, always need an adverbial after their object. A list of other verbs that need or allow an object complement is in the post 92. Complement-Showing “As”.

In (d), the object complement is a noun phrase. However, adjectives are just as possible:

(e) Columbus considered the Caribbean islands extremely beautiful.

Now we have a sentence that looks once again like (a). It is correct, however, because its verb CONSIDER needs an object complement. This is not a property of HAVE in sentence (a); it cannot make Portuguese an object complement with a resultant need to follow its noun. Could it be that the error in (a) has been caused by the writer incorrectly believing that HAVE requires an object complement in the way that CONSIDER does?


3. Beginning an Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase is a group of words that can replace an adjective in a sentence. One kind, less relevant here, is a combination of a preposition and its following noun (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions) – normally placed after the described noun (e.g. tea from India).

Other adjective phrases are made by adding words to an adjective. Sometimes these follow it, for example if they are an infinitive verb, as in easy to understand (see 83. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 2), or a preposition phrase, as in content with the outcome (see 111. Words with their Own Preposition). At other times the added words come first as an adverb or adverb phrase, as in a little controversial (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs).

The rule concerning the position of the whole adjective phrase is that when the extra words are after the adjective, the whole phrase normally follows its noun; otherwise it stays before. Consider the lone adjective in the following sentence:

(f) Important information was stored separately.

Here important is in the normal position before its noun information. However, if it becomes a phrase with words added after it, such as important to keep, it must be repositioned after the noun (or, less formally, be split to make important information to keep – see 2. Interrupted Structures). On the other hand, if something is added before, e.g. vitally important, no repositioning is possible.

This feature of English could easily explain the error in (a), where the adjective Portuguese follows typically in a phrase. Could it be that the writer is confusing the two types of adjective phrase, incorrectly thinking that the word before Portuguese requires it to follow its noun when in fact only words after do?


Adjectives that Normally Follow their Noun

Finally, it is possible that the writer of (a) simply thought that Portuguese belonged to the small group of English adjectives that normally follow the noun they describe. These include below (e.g. the diagram below – see 74. Listing 3: Bullet Points), present meaning “not absent” (the members present), proper meaning “real” (the building proper), general meaning “with general responsibility” (the Superior General), immemorial (only found in time immemorial) and responsible meaning “in charge” (the person responsible).

However, confusing Portuguese with these seems quite unlikely, since one would surely not have great difficulty in remembering that the large group of nationality adjectives combines with nouns in the normal way.


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