Post-positive Adjectives in English

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An often-noted difference between English and the Romance languages is that in English, adjectives precede the noun. English-speakers say “the red car,” whereas French-speakers say, “the car red” (la voiture rouge).

Nevertheless, English possesses many examples of post-positive adjectives: adjectives that follow the noun.

Some of these after-the-noun adjectives belong to set phrases, collocations whose elements are fixed in a particular order.

Some of these phrases derive from foreign borrowings from Latin or other languages in which the post-positive adjective is usual. Such phrases are well represented in legal, governmental, and fiscal vocabulary.

malice aforethought
persona non grata
accounts payable
fee simple
pound sterling
attorney general
body politic
heir apparent
letters patent
notary public
attorney general
postmaster general
prince regent
poet laureate

In general, phrases with the adjective after the noun are usually pluralized by adding the –s to the noun.

fees simple
notaries public

However, placing the –s at the end of the phrase may one day be acceptable with all of them. At present, the Oxford English Dictionary flat out calls court martials “incorrect.” On the other hand, the OED approves of attorney-generals. Merriam-Webster, a US dictionary, gives courts-martial first, but allows court-martials as an alternative. The same goes for attorney general: the first choice in M-W is attorneys general, but attorney generals is offered as an acceptable alternative.

Placing the adjective after the noun is common in the naming of dishes and drinks.

spaghetti Bolognese
chicken supreme
eggs Benedict
beef bourguignon
beef Stroganoff
beef Wellington
lobster Newburg
fettuccine Alfredo
oysters Rockefeller
bananas Foster
cherries jubilee
peach Melba
brandy Alexander
Cuba libre
whiskey sour

Alcoholics Anonymous with its post-positive qualifier has launched several twelve-step emulators.
Emotions Anonymous
Marijuana Anonymous
Sexaholics Anonymous
Overeaters Anonymous
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

Another source for post-positive adjectives is religious writing and poetry. Maybe putting the adjective at the end intensifies a thought or image. Examples of religious terms include God almighty, devil incarnate, life everlasting, and Church triumphant.

Longfellow’s long poem Evangeline opens with the memorable “This is the forest primeval.” The poet follows this up with hemlocks bearded with moss, garments green, voices sad and prophetic, harpers hoar, and accents disconsolate—all within the first six lines of the poem.

Perhaps because post-positive adjectives have a poetic ring, authors use them in titles.

Sarah Tall and Plain (Patricia MacLachlan)
Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)
Tuck Everlasting (Natalie Babbitt)
Paradise Lost (John Milton)
Prometheus Unbound (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Rabbit Redux (John Updike)
Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Ford Coppola)

Note on redux
The adjective redux is always used post-positively. It’s from Latin reducere, “to bring back.” As an English adjective, it means “brought back” or “restored.” As a title element, redux has been around at least since the seventeenth century, when John Dryden wrote a long poem called Astraea Redux to celebrate the restoration of Charles II. In the nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope wrote a novel called Phineas Redux, a sequel to an earlier book. The presence of redux on the Ngram viewer is modest until the 1970s, when John Updike made it popular with the publication of Rabbit Redux (1971).

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2 thoughts on “Post-positive Adjectives in English”

  1. Very timely. We are hearing about attorney generals and others– adjutant generals, advocate generals, etc– all too often nowadays from the media pundits that are still mysteriously considered by many to be erudite. Not to mention other, even more common poison plurals– brother-in-laws, mother-in-laws, passerbys, spoonsful/tablespoosful (double tricky), and the seeming inability of even professional speakers to get phenomenon/phenomena straight.

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