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Author Topic: When it is desirable to position adjectives postpositively  (Read 198 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 26, 2017, 12:36:14 AM »

In March of  2013, Tanzania-based Forum member Mwita Chacha posted this provocative question in the Forum: “We are always told that in constructing a noun phrase, an adjective must precede the head noun. Now how has this clearly poorly constructed noun phrase qualified to be a book title—English Plain and Simple?”

My reply to Mwita Chacha:
That first English-usage book of mine has been in print since 2004, and I’m gratified to say that over the years, it has received generally positive critical reviews as well as appreciative reader feedback. I was therefore momentarily thrown off-balance when I saw your posting.

Knowing you to be a nonnative English speaker who’s admirably knowledgeable about English grammar and usage, I find your indictment of “English Plain and Simple” as a grammatically flawed title perfectly understandable. After all, the prevailing grammar convention in English is that as a rule, adjectives should be positioned before the noun they modify. This is the so-called attributive position, as in the noun phrase “major dilemma” where the adjective “major” works as a premodifier. The polar opposite of this is the so-called predicative position where “major” works as a postmodifier, as in “dilemma major.” To the eyes, ears, and sensibility of an untrained English speaker, this is an awful and patently unacceptable position for that adjective.

Indeed, the general run of English adjectives doesn’t work properly in the predicative or postmodifier position. Think “blunder monumental,” “nonsense absolute,” and “fool incorrigible” and you’ll immediately realize why. In contrast, see and feel how right and proper those noun phrases become when the adjectives are moved to the premodifier position: “monumental blunder,” “absolute nonsense,” and “incorrigible fool.”

However, due to the influence of French and other Romance languages (as a rule, they position adjectives after the nouns being modified), English has accumulated a sizable number of adjectives that sound right, look right, and feel right positioned after the nouns they modify. They are known as postpositive adjectives, and here are just a few common noun phrases using them: “heir apparent,” “time immemorial,” “body politic,” “devil incarnate,” “accounts payable,” “words unspoken,” “poet laureate,” and “court martial.” Through force of repeated usage over the centuries, these phrases have established themselves as perfectly legitimate grammatical constructions in English.

Native English speakers will therefore now find it terribly out of line saying these phrases the normal prepositive but unidiomatic way. However, many nonnative speakers or learners of English will understandably say them or insist in having them said precisely that way—“apparent heir,” “immemorial time,” “incarnate devil,” “laureate poet.” Little do they know that they are showing instead their lack of awareness that some adjectives can, in fact, work postpositively.

Now, discounting the fact that English phrases using postpositive adjectives exist, is there any practical use at all for breaking the premodifier norm for adjectives? The answer is a definite yes. Normally, when the information an adjective contains isn’t the main focus of the noun phrase, the adjective takes the attributive or premodifier position, as in “all bright and beautiful things, all great and small creatures, all wise and wonderful things.” On the other hand, when the objective is to emphasize or dramatize the information supplied by those adjectives, it is desirable—if the syntax would allow it—to position those adjectives postpositively.

We can clearly see and feel the intended emphasis—in this particular case, the elevation of language and the poetic flourish—that the postpositive positioning of the adjectives provides to these lines from Cecil Frances Alexander’s 1848 inspirational hymn:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

I used precisely the same mechanism of language to lift the title of my book above the mundane and commonplace. Avoiding the plain-Jane form “Plain and Simple English,” I came up with the much more catchy postpositive “English Plain and Simple” instead.

Mwita Chacha’s response to my explanation:
“I’m most grateful, Sir, for the response; it has really been an eye opener. Before this, I had always been confused by adjective-following-noun constructions. From now on I’ll try whenever possible to construct my noun phrases in that way, assuming there are no ‘rules hard-and-fast’ against such positioning of adjectives.”

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the March 9, 2013 issue of The Manila Times, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways
       To Learn Today’s Global Language

« Last Edit: January 26, 2017, 01:49:53 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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