How to Treat Postpositive Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Nearly a thousand years ago, the Norman Conquest had a profound effect not only on the English nation but also on the English language. One of the manifestations of this event is the survival of the postpositive adjective.

In many languages, including French, a modifying word follows the word it modifies, such as in the phrase ressource naturelle (“natural resources”). Because of Norman French’s influence on law, politics, and other matters sovereign, we still sometimes use this form in the mongrel melange that is the English language.

Thus “attorney general” (as well as “secretary general” and “postmaster general”), which refers not to a military rank but to the office holder’s generic scope of responsibility. Thus court-martial, which literally pertains to a court of a martial, or warlike, nature but practically applies to a military court in wartime or peacetime. Thus “heir apparent” and knight-errant, artifacts of feudal system. (Note that compound form is inconsistent: Open compounds prevail, but some hyphenated forms persist. When in doubt, look the term up. If certain, look the term up anyway.)

This form reaches even into the quotidian vocabulary of business, with “accounts payable” and “accounts receivable,” as well as “notary public,” and in terms that apply to government but have entered general use, such as “body politic.” There’s even a pair of ordinary words that sometimes take postpositive adjectives in some contexts; I used one earlier in this post, in the phrase “matters sovereign.” Another is things, as in “things unsaid.”

And how are such terms pluralized? Generally — as shown in the first two examples in the paragraph above — the noun, not the adjective, logically takes the plural form: for example, “attorneys general” (but attorney-generals in British English), courts-martial, and “notaries public.”

The same is true of mother-in-law and like terms, the plural form of which is rendered mothers-in-law, and similar constructions such as “editor in chief” (sometimes hyphenated, though that style is outmoded), right-of-way, and sergeant-at-arms (pluralized as “editors in chief,” rights-of-way, and sergeants-at-arms, respectively).

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6 Responses to “How to Treat Postpositive Adjectives”

  • thebluebird11

    I minored in French in college many years ago, but IIRC (and I can’t swear that I do), we had a mnemonic for the adjectives that came BEFORE the noun they modified, and that was BANGS: Beauty, Age, Number, Goodness, Size. So any adjectives that fit into those categories came before the noun (e.g. belle chemise/beautiful shirt, jeune fille/young girl, etc). All the rest of the adjectives, I believe, fit the bill addressed by your post and come after the noun they modify. I’m sure someone will correct me if my memory is failing…

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many writers and speakers of English do not understand the case of prepositional phrases that modify nouns, pronouns, and verbs. Those phrases FOLLOW the words that they modify. In these cases, the prepositional phrases act as adjectives or adverbs. (This article did not mention the use of phrases or clauses as adjectives at all.)

    Furthermore, most of those same people do not know how to utilize prepostional phrases or participles except in fixed expressions. In other words, they are unable to craft their own.
    Here is an example of something that is happening way too often in advertising in North America, and probably elsewhere, too:

    “The number-one doctor-recommended blah-blah-blah…”,
    instead of “The number-one blah-blah-blah recommended by doctors…”. The same goes for sentences about dentists, lawyers, teachers, medical specialists, etc. The ability to use proper and meaningful prepositional phrases has simply vanished in many cases.

    Here is one that was pointed out to me. (I cannot claim credit for it.) So-called “skin care” products frequently have claims of “dermatologist-tested.” Well, that is probably true, but the advertisers never mentioned the conclusions of the dermatologists, such as “This stuff is a bunch of snake oil!”, or “This is NBG,” where NBG = “No Bloody Good”. You can also think of colorful American expressions for the same idea….
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, there was a TV comedy program called THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW. It was about the two mothers of a newlywed couple, and the mothers had both gone broke. I believe that they were both widows. They were played by Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard.
    They two women did not have anywhere to go except to move in with their two married children. Naturally, this set up a lot of hilarious situations. Unfortunately, I think that this show was only broadcast for one TV year.
    Here is the scene that I remember the most. Ms. Arden and Ms. Ballard were attending a party were there were a lot of snacks available, and Ballard was eating these heavily.
    Ms. Arden said, “If you keep on eating like that, you will need a cast-iron girdle!”
    Ms. Ballard replied, “Great idea! You simply must give me the name of your blacksmith.”
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    You mean it’s not Noda Republic? On the subject of attorneys general, etc., I have noticed inconsistencies with the military rank/position of sergeant major. Etymology, AFAIK, would dictate sergeants major as the plural, yet rarely (not never, but close) do I see it. I understand that the Army and Marines dictate the term sergeant majors internally, probably without any thought to it, and that is fine in their context. But as far as the language is concerned, wouldn’t the case for sergeants major be stronger? I think the origin is major modifiying sergeant, but that could be wrong.

  • Mark Nichol

    Venqax:

    Major and general both originated as modifying comparative and superlative terms, respectively: “Sergeant major” (originally sergeant-major) first connoted a sergeant superior in rank to others not designated with that term, and general derived from captain-general, referring to one captain given general, or ultimate, authority. The names of the current ranks of major and general are truncations of those terms. (The former rank splintered into two, both retaining its status and evolving from that of a senior enlisted man to a midlevel commissioned officer.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that the army rank of “captain” or the equivalent dates all the way back to the Roman Empire, if not to the Ancient Greeks. I don’t know enough Latin or Greek to say any more.

    Mr. Nichol did not say anything about the naval rank of captain, which is quite different from the rank in the army, air force, or Marine Corps, and which probably has different roots, and which probably stems all the way back to the Romans or the Ancient Greeks.

    Also, consider the German equivalent of “captain” in the army or the air force. It is “Hauptmann”, which means “head man”. That is probably a very old term, too, and he was the head man over a certain number of lieutenants and troops, and he was junior to these:
    1. Maior – which is major in English
    2. Oberst – which is colonel in English
    3. General – spelled the same in English or German, but the sound is somewhat different.

    The German Navy has had some ranks that sound familiar, and some that sound strange: Kapitan, Admiral, Generaladmiral, and Grossadmiral (Big Admiral).

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