In March of 2013, Tanzania-based Forum member Mwita Chacha posted this provocative question in the Forum: âWe 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 titleâEnglish Plain and Simple
?âMy reply to Mwita Chacha:
That first English-usage book of mine has been in print since 2004, and Iâm 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 whoâs admirably knowledgeable about English grammar and usage, I find your indictment of âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ 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 âmajor dilemmaâ where the adjective âmajorâ works as a premodifier
. The polar opposite of this is the so-called predicative position
where âmajorâ works as a postmodifier
, as in âdilemma major.â 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 doesnât work properly in the predicative or postmodifier position. Think âblunder monumental,â ânonsense absolute,â and âfool incorrigibleâ and youâll 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
: âmonumental blunder,â âabsolute nonsense,â and âincorrigible fool.â
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 adjective
s, and here are just a few common noun phrases using them: âheir apparent,â âtime immemorial,â âbody politic,â âdevil incarnate,â âaccounts payable,â âwords unspoken,â âpoet laureate,â and âcourt martial.â 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 wayââapparent heir,â âimmemorial time,â âincarnate devil,â âlaureate poet.â 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 isnât the main focus of the noun phrase, the adjective takes the attributive or premodifier position, as in âall bright and beautiful things, all great and small creatures, all wise and wonderful things.â On the other hand, when the objective is to emphasize or dramatize the information supplied by those adjectives, it is desirableâif the syntax would allow itâto position those adjectives postpositively.
We can clearly see and feel the intended emphasisâin this particular case, the elevation of language and the poetic flourishâthat the postpositive positioning of the adjectives provides to these lines from Cecil Frances Alexanderâs 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 âPlain and Simple English,â I came up with the much more catchy postpositive âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ instead.Mwita Chachaâs response to my explanation:
âIâm 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 Iâll try whenever possible to construct my noun phrases in that way, assuming there are no ârules hard-and-fastâ against such positioning of adjectives.âThis essay first appeared in the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in the March 9, 2013 issue of
The Manila Times, Â© 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE BOOK:English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways
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