Student Stumper 10: The placement of adjectives

QUESTION: Do adjectives always come before nouns in English?


This question was shared with me by my Finnish colleague, a remarkable teacher with a firm grasp of grammar. She was challenged by her students to prove that adjectives in English always precede the noun they modify. Apparently, other sources led them to believe there was a hard and fast rule about word order. Well, she didn’t have to prove what she knew to be untrue.

At first, when asked about adjectives, we might automatically state a textbook-like definition: Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.  Of course, more readily understood wording could be used, but the basic idea is the same: Adjectives describe people and things, and they typically answer the questions which and what kind. The examples that would most likely come to mind first are simple and common ones: good book, tall man, happy girl, etc. Indeed, the more frequent practice is to place an adjective before a noun or pronoun. (We can say these adjectives function attributively.)

But with deeper reflection, we have to consider a number of constructions in which an adjective is placed after the noun or pronoun it modifies (i.e., functioning predicatively). Let’s start with these two:

  • Participial adjectives/ passive constructions: Bruce Lee was, of course, a man trained in the martial arts.
  • Reduced adjective clauses (without participial adjectives): Who would play the lead role in this movie? The producers were looking for someone young yet mature./ The patient, now healthy and happy, thanked the doctor before leaving the hospital./I’ll eat anything sweet and chocolaty.

Wikipedia notes the role complex wording plays in deciding the placement of an adjective. This example is cited online: “an evildoer devoid of redeeming qualities”.[1] The point being that a simple adjective generally precedes a noun, but a complex adjectival phrase is more natural when placed after the noun. Going back to our first example, we could talk about a trained artist, but trained in the martial arts is too long and complex to place before the head noun.

I agree with the logic above, and yet does that mean it’s wrong to place a single adjective after the noun it modifies? Consider this statement: I like my coffee strong. This has a different meaning from I like my strong coffee, doesn’t it? The former means I prefer strong coffee to weak coffee. The latter suggests that I have some coffee in my possession, it’s strong, and I like it. Or it might mean that I like my strong coffee, but I don’t like yours. Hmm, so can we add another construction to our list?

  • Omission of infinitive to be: I like my coffee (to be) strong. / She likes her men (to be) tall, dark, and handsome.

Here’s final construction Wikipedia poses for consideration:

  • Adjectives qualified by an adverb phrase: “I saw three kids happy enough to jump up and down with glee.”[2]

Can you think of other cases when adjectives follow the nouns or pronouns they modify?




5 Comments Add yours

  1. Caleris says:

    Thank you Jennifer! because of the lesson I taught, I have been getting a lot of lessons.

  2. Nina says:

    I recently covered a unit on adjective clauses for my intermediate grammar class. However, the ss are confused about the use of where vs which. I tried to give examples, but if you can help me explain it better or suggest a resource I can use, it would be very helpful. An example I gave was “I always walk the dogs at a park which is close to my house.” some ss where confused why “where” can’t be used.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello! Hmm… I think it’s going to be clearer if you break the long sentence into two. Show the students how the adjective clause was made.
      Example 1 – I always walk the dogs at a park which is close to my house. = I always walk the dogs at a park. It (the park) is close to my house.
      which = it/ the park (pronoun or noun)
      Compare to Example 2 – I remember the park where we first met. = I rememer the park. We first met there.
      where = there
      We can’t say, “There is close to my house.” We must say, “It is close to my house.” That’s why the relative pronoun “which” is needed in Example 1 and “where” is needed in Example 2. Does that make sense?

      I’d tell students that as a relative pronoun, where has the meaning “there” or “in/ at which”.

      1. Let’s go to the park which has the big fountain. [which = it > It has a big fountain.]
      2. Let’s go to the park where ice cream is sold. [where = there OR in which > Ice ceam is sold there. / It’s the park in which ice cream is sold.

      1. Nina Dellona says:

        Thanks so much for the reply. Your explanation is very clear and will definitely be very helpful to the students.

      2. englishwithjennifer says:

        Great! I’m so glad. Did you see the suggested activity I posted last week for this topic? Here’s the link.

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