Post-positive adjective

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A post-positive or postpositive is an adjective (called a post-positive adjective) or adjectival phrase that appears, within the same clause, after the noun that it modifies. In some languages (such as French, Spanish, and Italian), this is the normal syntax, but in English it is more unusual, largely confined to archaic, poetic, or certain traditional phrases, some of them probably holdovers from Law French. An English example of a postpositive appears in the following sentence: "They heard creatures unseen" (rather than the more grammatically typical sentence "They heard unseen creatures").

Sentences such as "They need a house big enough for their family" are not, strictly speaking, examples of postpositive adjective usage, as the noun and the adjective are in separate clauses (the example sentence means "They need a house [that is] big enough for their family"; hence the incorrectness of saying just "a house big").

Recognizing postpositive adjectives in English is important for determining the correct plural for a compound expression.

Usage in modern English[edit]

Stage- and individual-level adjectives[edit]

A variety of names, titles, or set phrases in English employ post-positive adjectives. Examples of some traditional phrases are "best room available," "best choice possible," "worst choice imaginable," "things possible and impossible," "things forgotten," "words unspoken," "dreams undreamt," "the light fantastic," "fiddlers three," "forest primeval," etc. Postpositive phrases sometimes result from translations through foreign languages that commonly use post-positives or from loanwords, such as the English postpositive phrases "agent provocateur" (from French) or "persona non grata" (from Latin).

Some adjectives in English exhibit a slight change in meaning when used postpositively. Consider the following example.

  1. "Every visible star is named after a famous astronomer."
  2. "Every star visible is named after a famous astronomer."

The postpositive in (2) can only have a stage-level reading, whereas the adjective in (1) can have either reading. The stage-level reading is one which talks about stars which are visible at the moment (given cloud-cover, etc.); a more explicit phrasing would be "Every star visible (right) here/now is named after a famous astronomer". The individual-level reading refers to the inherent property of the star, regardless of current conditions. ("Sirius is visible to the naked eye; however, you can't see it at the moment because it's cloudy.") An explicit phrasing would be "Every star visible in general is named after a famous astronomer".

Here is another example.

  1. "I'm here to find the responsible people."
  2. "I'm here to find the people responsible."

The first sentence implies that the subject is searching for a "trustworthy" group and that he or she has yet to meet them. The second sentence implies that they have met and that things haven't gone well. The subject finds "the people" not trustworthy but rather liable.

Examples in set phrases[edit]

Examples in names and titles[edit]

Post-positive phrases lacking pure adjectives[edit]

Rarely, in particular set post-positive phrases, the noun may be followed, not by an adjective, but by an adverb, preposition, noun, or other non-adjectival feature that, for all intents and purposes, functions adjectivally.
A few examples:

  • editor-in-chief — "in chief" is a prepositional phrase
  • father-to-be, mother-to-be, husband-to-be, etc. — "to be" is an infinitive verb
  • Johnny-come-lately — "come" is a verb and "lately" is its modifying adverb
  • passer-by — "by" is a preposition
  • president pro tempore — "pro tempore" is an adverbial phrase (from Latin)
  • right-of-way — "of way" is a prepositional phrase

List of adjectives primarily used postpositively[edit]

In English, the following adjectives are always (or most commonly) used postpositively:

Post-positive plurals[edit]

In the plural forms of postpositives, the pluralizing morpheme (most commonly the suffix "-s" or "-es") is added to the end of the noun, rather than to the end of the entire postpositive phrase (which is a common but erroneous regularization). For instance, the plural form of "town proper" is "towns proper"; of "battle royal" is "battles royal"; of "attorney general" is "attorneys general"; of "bride-to-be" is "brides-to-be"; and of "passer-by" is "passers-by."

This pluralization, however, does not apply to post-positive phrases that have been rigidly fixed into names and titles. (For example, an English speaker would be more likely to say "Were there two separate Weather Undergrounds by the 1970s, or just one single organization?").

Other postpositive phrases remain as they are in all cases because they by default use a plural construction (and have no singular form), such as "eggs Benedict," "nachos supreme," "Brothers Grimm," or "Workers United."

See also[edit]


External links[edit]