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). Some adjectives can only go in one of these two positions (see 184. Adjectives with Restrictions on their Position). In a few cases we also find an English adjective placed after its noun without a linking verb. Immediate placement after is usually explained in advanced grammar books; later placement is considered in this blog in 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2 (#3).

Here, 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 immediately 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 frequent ability of which is/are to be dropped in English, situations that rule out the normal adjective positions, and the existence in English of some adjectives that always follow their noun.

1. Correct and Incorrect Dropping of “which is”/“which are”

As already mentioned, one way of correcting (a) above is by adding which are before typically Portuguese. These words (more generally relative pronoun + BE) typically allow not just adjectives to be placed directly after a noun, but also participles and preposition phrases, like this:

(b) (+PARTICIPLE) One must remember the tendency WHICH HAS BEEN noted.

(c) (+ PREPOSITION PHRASE) The region has artefacts WHICH ARE of a sophisticated kind.

These uses differ, however, from the adjective one in not having to include which + BE: it is easily dropped. This means that adjectives are rather exceptional in always needing which + BE (though even they can drop it in one special situation – see below). As a result of this, it is not hard to imagine that some inexperienced English users will sometimes think that adjectives after a noun have the same grammar as participles and preposition phrases, and will drop which + BE before them.

One complication to note here is the fact that participles and adjectives are not always so easy to distinguish, since some words that look like participles, such as interesting and educated, have evolved to be more like adjectives (see 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”). It is also the case that some participles are more usable after their noun than others (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun, #6).


2. Situations that Rule Out Normal Adjective Positions

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

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.


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. For other verbs that need or allow an object complement, see 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 considered needs an object complement. This is not a property of has 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?


An adjective phrase is a group of words that can replace an adjective in a sentence. It does not have to include an adjective. The combination of a preposition and its following noun, as illustrated by of a sophisticated kind in (c) above, is as often like an adjective as like an adverb (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). However, it is adjective phrases containing an adjective that are of interest here.

Some adjective phrases of this kind have the adjective at the beginning. The extra words may then be 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 a Typical Preposition), or a that clause, as in hopeful that all will succeed (see 153. Conjunction Uses of that). Other adjective phrases, however, have the adjective at the end, after 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 (with or without which is – the added words change the normal necessity for which is before an adjective) or, less formally, be split to make important information to keep – see 2. Interrupted Structures). On the other hand, if wording 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?


3. 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. Sentence Lists 3: Bullet Points), present meaning “not absent” (the members present), proper meaning “exact” (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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