A postpositive or postnominal adjective is an attributive adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun.
In some languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian) the postpositive placement of adjectives is the normal syntax, but in English it is less usual, largely confined to archaic and poetic uses (as in They heard creatures unseen), certain traditional phrases (such as heir apparent), and certain particular grammatical constructions (as in those anxious to leave).
Recognizing postpositive adjectives in English is important for determining the correct plural for a compound expression. For example, because martial is a postpositive adjective in the phrase court-martial, the plural is courts-martial, the ending being attached to the noun rather than the adjective.
Occurrence in languages
In certain languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Khmer, postpositive adjectives are the norm: it is normal for an attributive adjective to follow, rather than precede, the noun it modifies. The following example is from French:
- le cheval blanc, "the white horse" (literally "the horse white")
In particular instances, however, such languages may also feature prepositive adjectives. In French, certain common adjectives normally precede the noun, including grand ("big"):
- le grand cheval, "the big horse"
Prepositive and postpositive adjectives may occur in the same phrase:
- un bon vin blanc, "a good white wine"
In many other languages, including English, German, Russian and Chinese, prepositive adjectives are the norm (attributive adjectives normally come before the nouns they modify), and adjectives appear postpositively only in special situations, if at all. The situations in which postpositive adjectives appear in English are described in the following sections.
In modern English
One common situation in which adjectives appear postpositively in English is when they qualify compound indefinite pronouns: something, anyone, nobody, somewhere, etc. Examples: We need someone strong; Going anywhere nice?; Nothing important happened.
Another situation is when the adjective itself has a modifier that comes after it; that is, when the noun or pronoun is in fact modified by an adjective phrase in which the head adjective is not final. Such phrases as bigger than that, proud of themselves, anxious to leave, if used attributively, would normally have to come after the noun, as in we need a box bigger than that (not *a bigger than that box, although it is possible in this case to say a bigger box than that). Exceptions include certain established phrases such as easy-to-use and variations thereof, which can be used as if they were single adjectives before the noun. Phrases in which the adjective is followed only by enough also often appear before the noun. Conversely, some phrases in which the adjective is final, such as this big and that ugly, tend to follow the noun.
Certain adjectives are used fairly commonly in postpositive position. Present and past participles exhibit this behavior, as in all those entering should ..., one of the men executed was ..., but this may be considered to be a verbal rather than adjectival use (a kind of reduced relative clause). Similar behavior is displayed by many adjectives with the suffix -able or -ible (e.g. the best room available, the only decision possible, the worst choice imaginable). Certain other adjectives with a sense similar to those in the foregoing categories are also found postpositively (all the people present, the first payment due).
Adjectives may undergo a change of meaning when used postpositively. Consider the following examples:
- Every visible star is named after a famous astronomer.
- Every star visible is named after a famous astronomer.
The postpositive in the second sentence is expected to refer to the stars that are visible here and now; that is, it expresses a stage-level predicate. The prepositive in the first sentence may also have that sense, but it may also have an individual-level meaning, referring to an inherent property of the object (the stars that are visible in general). Quite a significant difference in meaning is found with the adjective responsible:
- I'm here to find the responsible people.
- I'm here to find the people responsible.
Used prepositively, as in the first sentence, it generally means something like "trustworthy" or "reliable", but when used postpositively, as in the second sentence, it probably means "at fault" or "guilty" (of some misdeed known from the context). Another adjective with a special postpositive meaning is proper: in phrases like the town proper, Sweden proper, it means something like "strictly defined".
There are many set phrases in English which feature postpositive adjectives. They are often loans or loan translations from foreign languages that commonly use postpositives, especially French (many legal terms come from Law French). Some examples appear below:
- Legal and general terms: agent provocateur, battle royal, body corporate, body politic, corporation sole, court-martial, fee simple, fee tail, femme fatale, force majeure, God Almighty, heir apparent, heir presumptive, knight errant, language isolate, letters close, letters patent, letters testamentary, life everlasting, the light fantastic, malice aforethought (also malice prepense), persona non grata, mens rea, pound sterling, proof positive, spaghetti bolognese, sum total, time immemorial, times past, treasure trove (in the legal sense)
- Names of posts, ranks, etc.: bishop emeritus, professor emeritus, attorney general, consul general, governor general, postmaster general, surgeon general, Astronomer Royal, Princess Royal, airman basic, minister plenipotentiary, minister-president, notary public, poet laureate, president-elect, prime minister-designate, prince regent, sergeant major, queen consort, prince consort, queen regnant, prince regnant, directorate-general, director-general, etc.
- Various terms used in heraldry, including dexter and sinister (as in bend dexter, bend sinister), and several referring to attitude, as in eagle displayed, lion passant guardant, griffin rampant, phoenix rising, bird vigilant, etc.
- Names of organizations: Alcoholics Anonymous, Amnesty International, ARCHIVE Global, Child United, Church Universal and Triumphant, Generation Next, Japan Airlines Domestic, Jet-Blue, Ruritan National, Situationist International, Socialist International, Verizon Wireless, Virgin Mobile, Weather Underground, Workers United
- Hospital emergency codes: Code Amber, Code Black, Code Orange, Code Red
- Terms referring to food and drink: chicken supreme, etc.; whiskey sour, etc.
- Regnal numbers and other appellations, usually including the definite article before the adjective: Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth the Second, Alexander the Great, Ethelred the Unready, etc. Note also the generational titles Junior and Senior, and a few special cases such as Nero Redivivus.
Certain other adjectives, or words of adjectival type, are typically placed after the noun, although their use is not limited to particular noun(s). Some of them may alternatively be regarded as adverbial modifiers, which would be expected to follow the noun (see below). Examples of such uses include buildings ablaze, two abreast, holidays abroad, boats adrift, fun and games à gogo, arms akimbo, food aplenty, men asleep, men awake, athlete extraordinaire, tulips galore, devil incarnate, a hero manqué, the Cold War redux.
Archaic and poetic usage, titles of works
Phrases with postpositive adjectives are sometimes used with archaic effect, as in things forgotten, words unspoken, dreams undreamt. Phrases which reverse the normal word order are quite common in poetry, as with "fiddlers three" (from Old King Cole), "forest primeval" (from Evangeline).
Titles of books, films, etc. commonly feature nouns with postpositive adjectives. These are often present or past participles (see above), but other types of adjectives sometimes occur. Examples: Apocalypse Now Redux, "Bad Moon Rising", Body Electric, Brideshead Revisited, Chicken Little, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, A Dream Deferred, Hannibal Rising, Hercules Unchained, Jupiter Ascending, The Life Aquatic, A Love Supreme, The Matrix Reloaded, Monsters Unleashed, Orpheus Descending, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Prometheus Unbound, "The Road Not Taken", Sonic Unleashed, Tarzan Triumphant, The World Unseen.
Other postpositive noun modifiers
Nouns may have other modifiers besides adjectives. Some kinds of modifiers tend to precede the noun, while others tend to come after. Determiners (including articles, possessives, demonstratives, etc.) come before the noun. Noun adjuncts (nouns qualifying another noun) also generally come before the nouns they modify: in a phrase like book club, the adjunct (modifier) book comes before the head (modified noun) club. However, prepositional phrases, adverbs of location, etc., as well as relative clauses, come after the nouns they modify: the elephant in the room; all the people here; the woman you spoke to. (These remarks apply to English syntax; other languages may use different word order. In Chinese, for example, virtually all modifiers come before the noun, whereas in the Khmer language they follow the noun.)
Sometimes a noun with a postpositive modifier comes to form a set phrase, similar in some ways to the set phrases with postpositive adjectives referred to above (in that, for example, the plural ending will normally attach to the noun, rather than at the end of the phrase). Some such phrases include:
- With a noun followed by a prepositional phrase: mother-in-law etc.; editor-in-chief, right of way, president pro tempore (where pro tempore is a Latin prepositional phrase), fish filet deluxe (where de luxe is a French prepositional phrase)
- With an infinitive verb or a verb phrase: father-to-be, bride-to-be, etc.; Johnny-come-lately
- With an adverbial particle from a phrasal verb: passer-by, hanger-on
In some phrases, a noun adjunct appears postpositively (rather than in the usual prepositive position). Examples include Knights Hospitaller, Knights Templar, man Friday (or girl Friday, etc.), airman first class (also private first class, sergeant first class), as well as many names of foods and dishes, such as Bananas Foster, beef Wellington, broccoli raab, Cherries Jubilee, Chicken Tetrazzini, Crêpe Suzette, Eggs Benedict, Oysters Rockefeller, peach Melba, steak tartare, and duck a l'orange.
Identifying numbers (with or without the word number), and sometimes letters, appear after the noun in many contexts. Examples are Catch-22; warrant officer one, chief warrant officer two, etc.; Beethoven's Symphony No. 9; Call of Duty Three, Rocky Four, Shrek the Third, Generation Y. (For appellations such as "Henry the Fourth", often written "Henry IV", see above.)
Other common cases where modifiers follow a head noun include:
- Phrases like the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Rosensweig (although in ordinary cases the phrasing "the Brown brothers" is more common)
- Names of military operations and equivalent, such as Operation Barbarossa, Operation Desert Storm, etc.
- Names of scientific projects and the like, such as Project Daedalus, Project Echo
Plurals of expressions with postpositives
In the plural forms of expressions with postpositive adjectives or other postpositive modifiers, the pluralizing morpheme (most commonly the suffix -s or -es) is added after the noun, rather than after the entire phrase. For instance, the plural form of town proper is towns proper, that of battle royal is battles royal, that of attorney general is attorneys general, that of bride-to-be is brides-to-be, and that of passer-by is passers-by. See also Plurals of French compounds.
With some such expressions, there is a tendency (by way of regularization) to add the plural suffix to the end of the whole expression. This is usually regarded by prescriptive grammarians as an error. Examples are *queen consorts (where queens consort is considered the correct form) and *court-martials (where the accepted plural is courts-martial, although court-martials can be used as a third person present tense verb form).
This rule does not necessarily apply to phrases with postpositives that have been rigidly fixed into names and titles. (For example, an English speaker might say "Were there two separate Weather Undergrounds by the 1970s, or just one single organization?".) Other phrases remain as they are because they intrinsically use a plural construction (and have no singular form), such as eggs Benedict, nachos supreme, Brothers Grimm, Workers United.
- Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: An Outline, CUP 1988, p. 109.
- Cinque, Guglielmo (2010). The Syntax of Adjectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262014168. LCCN 2009043836. OCLC 457772850.
- Internet Grammar of English at the University College London
- Heading East
- The Onion (satire): "William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior"