Put Adjectives in Their Place

By Mark Nichol

Where does an adjective go? It can appear virtually anywhere in a sentence, but the particular placement depends on its particular function.

The most common placement of an adjective — a word (or a phrase, known as a phrasal adjective or an adjectival phrase) that modifies a noun — is immediately before that noun: “I ordered a chocolate milk shake. It was my first one. It was the most delicious thing I’ve had in my life.”

However, the word order is sometimes reversed: “I left none untasted.” This reversal is typical of more lyrical content (“She left things unsaid”) but is appropriate for more functional text as well. (Thanks to the French influence on English, some standing phrases include what are called postpositive adjectives. Examples of these expressions are “body politic” and “heir apparent.”)

When the adjective describes a noun referred to as being a possession, it is inserted between the possessive noun and the noun identifying the possession: “He stole my friend’s strawberry milk shake! The culprit’s milk shake mustache gives him away.”

An adjective, as part of the predicate (the part of a sentence describing an action) can be the last word or phrase in a sentence: “He was sneaky. However, his guilt is obvious.”

It can also, as a participial adjective, begin a sentence: “Pink and frothy, it’s as obvious as (and just below) the nose on his face.” But writers must take care in matching the object of the sentence to the participial adjective: “Pink and frothy, I noticed it right away” is an example of this error, known as a dangling participle, so called because the participial adjective’s connection to the subject is tenuous. The subject of a sentence referring to the milk shake mustache should refer to that, not to the person noticing it: “Pink and frothy, the evidence was obvious right away.”

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4 Responses to “Put Adjectives in Their Place”

  • Tony Hearn

    ‘Pink and frothy’ is a participial phrase? Have I missed something? I thought a participle was part of a verb, as in “Glancing hastily behind him, he made his getaway”. Functionally you are correct, of course; adjectives and adjectival phrases in initial position have to be carefully related to their noun, and dangling adjectives and phrases (including participles) are widespread – and not infrequently amusing !

  • Mark Nichol

    Tony:

    Focusing on crafting an example that maintains the theme, I neglected to note that the introductory phrase I used was a dangling phrasal adjective, rather than a dangling participle.

    My point is that if that preceding sentence began, “Focusing on crafting an example that maintains the theme, the introductory phrase I used . . .,” it would be incorrect, because I, not the introductory phrase, am doing the focusing.

  • Warsaw Will

    “Pink and frothy, it’s as obvious as (and just below) the nose on his face.”

    I’m also a bit bemused by ‘pink and frothy’ being referred to as a dangling modifier of any sort.

    Firstly I thought that the term ‘dangling modifier’ was reserved for non-finite verb clauses, which could have an implied subject, not used for adjectival phrases.

    Secondly a modifier dangles when it is unable to attach itself to the subject of the main clause. But ‘pink and frothy’ refers specifically to the subject, ‘it’; what’s more it’s right next to the thing it is modifying, so it isn’t even a misplaced modifier.

    If the moustache had been introduced in the previous sentence, there’s absolutely no problem. If it hadn’t, then there would certainly be a lack of clarity, but that would be nothing to do with dangling modifiers, rather with the pronoun ‘it’ not having a clear antecedent.

  • Warsaw Will

    Please ignore my last comment, I had misread the paragraph and was fighting a straw man (it’s three in the morning here). I suppose I couldn’t get past ‘pink and frothy’ being referred to as dangling. ‘Being pink and frothy’, now that could be a dangling participle.

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