A postpositive adjective or postnominal adjective is an adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies, as in noun phrases such as attorney general, queen regnant, or all matters financial. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun, as in noun phrases such as red rose, lucky contestant, and busy bees.
In some languages the postpositive placement of adjectives is the normal syntax (as is true in Spanish, for example), but in English it is less usual, largely confined to archaic and poetic uses (as in They heard monsters unseen, as opposed to They heard unseen monsters), phrases borrowed from Romance languages or Latin (such as heir apparent, aqua regia), and certain fixed grammatical constructions (as in Those anxious to leave soon exited).
In syntax, postpositive position is independent of predicative position; a postpositive adjective can occur in either the subject or the predicate of a clause, and any adjective may be a predicate adjective if it follows a linking verb. For example, monsters unseen were said to lurk beyond the moor (subject of clause), but the children trembled in fear of monsters unseen (predicate of clause) and the monsters, if they existed, remained unseen (predicate adjective).
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 suffix being attached to the noun rather than the adjective. This pattern holds for most postpositive adjectives, with the few exceptions reflecting overriding linguistic processes such as rebracketing.
In certain languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Romanian, Arabic, Persian, Vietnamese 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 and Spanish:
In particular instances, however, such languages may also feature prepositive adjectives. In French, certain common adjectives, including grand ("big"), usually precede the noun, while in Spanish they can be prepositive or postpositve adjectives, in Vietnamese, most adjectives derived from Chinese precede the nouns:
When an adjective can appear in both positions, the precise meaning may depend on the position. E.g. in French:
Prepositive and postpositive adjectives may occur in the same phrase:
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.
Adjectives must appear postpositively in English when they qualify almost all compound and some simple indefinite pronouns: some/any/no/every...thing/one/body/where, those (more often between those...ones, this...one, that...one, these...ones) Examples: We need someone strong; those well baked; Going anywhere nice?; Nothing important happened; Everyone new did not know.
All adjectives are used postpositively for qualifying them precisely. The user follows the set formula:
|(optional preposition)||(a if singular)||noun||this||adjective||. (or verb/preposition and continuation)|
This can be replaced by that or so, or, archaically and in some dialects, yea. Without the preposition the formula is even more intuitive in replies. Examples pointing: "Which of the greyhounds do you like?" "Dogs this big." "A dog that weighty would definitely fit the bill." "A dog that tall to match my friend's." Examples figuratively: "A dog so fast it could win at the track".
Generally to these scenarios:
|Frequently used noun — more usually in plural form||adjective||infinitive of verb (i.e. to...)|
The optional positions apply to the debatable pronoun and near synonym pairs any way/anyhow, some way/somehow, as well as to (in) no way, in every way. Examples: It was in some way(s) good; it was good in some ways; it was good somehow; it was somehow good.
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 at will this can 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, the persons liable). Certain other adjectives with a sense similar to those in the foregoing categories are customarily found postpositively (all the people present, the first payment due). Their antonyms (absent and undue) and variations of due (overdue, post-due) can be placed in either position. These two words are among the least varied from the original Anglo-Norman and Old French terms, reflected in modern French, themselves all close to common Latin original forms. A third is used in locating places and in mainly dated use for complex objects: Sweden/the village/town/city proper...operating on the heart proper, it means "more narrowly defined", or "as more closely matches its character".
Adjectives may undergo a change of meaning when used postpositively. Consider the following examples:
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:
Used prepositively, can you direct me to the responsible people?, it strongly connotes "dedicated" or "reliable", and by use of the heavily conditional "should be" it denotes that, otherwise, as in the second sentence, it denotes the far more commonly used meaning in the 21st century of "at fault" or "guilty" unless the qualifying word for is added.
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:
Certain individual adjectives, or words of adjectival type, are typically placed after the noun. Their use is not limited to particular noun(s). Those beginning a before an old substantive word can be equally seen as adverbial modifiers (or nouns/pronouns), intuitively expected to be later (see below).
Phrases with postpositive adjectives are sometimes used with archaic effect, as in things forgotten, words unspoken, dreams believed. Phrases which reverse the normal word order are quite common in poetry, usually to fit the meter or rhyme, as with "fiddlers three" (from Old King Cole) or "forest primeval" (from Evangeline), though word order was less important in Early Modern English and earlier forms of English. Similar examples exist for possessive adjectives, as in "O Mistress Mine" (a song in Act II, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night).
Titles of books, films, poems, songs, etc. commonly feature nouns followed by 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, House Beautiful, 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, To a God Unknown, Tarzan Triumphant, Time Remembered, The World Unseen, Enemy Mine.
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. By contrast, 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 to whom you spoke. (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:
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:
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.