By Daniel


2011-09-18 21:59:24 8 Comments

Right now I can only think of one instance in which this regularly occurs. The adjective proper is sometimes placed after the noun it modifies, e.g:

Reptilia: A class of cold-blooded oviparous or ovoviviparous vertebrated animals whose skin is covered with scales or scutes; the reptiles proper.

What is this word order called, and why is it ever used?

Edit: I really want to know about proper, and while the word hyperbaton relates to post-positivity when it is meant to be rhetorically impacting, it doesn't seem to fit with ubiquitous post-positivity, such as that of proper. I've accepted hyperbaton as the correct term/reason for almost all post-positive constructions, but I'd like a complete answer to include proper.

5 comments

@Greg Lee 2015-03-12 04:48:05

The Art of Thinking (1662), or Port Royal Logic gives the example the stars visible where the adjective gives a accidental attribute, as compared with the visible stars, giving an essential attribute.

@user113407 2015-03-12 03:08:43

One effect of placing an adjective after the noun it modifies is that the adjective must be interpreted as a restrictive modifier. In "plan impossible", for example, an intended meaning is that some plans are impossible but others aren't. When placed before the noun, depending on the context, the adjective could be mistaken as non-restrictive.

Incidentally this practice coincides with those of romance languages.

@AmI 2018-09-15 08:12:35

I think you have the non-restrictive placement backwards.

@John Thiesmeyer 2014-12-28 05:35:32

I've been searching on the Web for the large-ish group of what I've seen called "a-adjectives" that cannot normally precede nouns they modify in English. Examples are adrift, awry, athwart, afraid. There are at least 40 of them. Most of them are NOT derived from French or any non-English language; they come originally from Anglo-Saxon, I believe.

As best I can tell, to use these adjectives before nouns, you have to cange them: a driting boat, a fearful person.

I saw a list a year or so ago, I think on Wikipedia, but I can't find it again.

@tchrist 2014-12-28 06:55:40

Anglo-Saxon is not a language. Perhaps you mean Old English.

@David Bowman 2011-10-05 21:47:37

This is called hyperbaton, which means to use out of the normal order to emphasis or to modify the meaning of the noun preceding the adjective. Another example is the movie title Mission Impossible. The writing guide Bang: Writing with Impact explains it this way:

Any time you place words out of their normal order, you create impact. You force the reader to pay attention to them, reflect on them, and remember them. In this strategy, you immediately follow the name of a thing with an adjective or descriptive phrase. In this way, the description becomes part of the name of the thing; they are inseparable. When your reader thinks of the thing, he or she will also think of the description because the description becomes part of the name.

Your reader will notice this immediately, which means this strategy can be used to emphasize a key characteristic. However, because this change in word order is so obvious and so prone to sounding contrived, it must be used carefully and infrequently. In the right place, it can be a highly effective technique for emphasizing a point. Use it at the end of a sentence for greatest impact.

“This is a plan impossible.”

@Daniel 2011-10-05 22:06:33

This doesn't explain proper, but it explains just about everything else!

@Ben Crowell 2014-02-13 03:47:16

In "reptiles proper," the word-order isn't for emphasis or to modify the meaning of "reptiles" (except in the sense that any adjective modifies the meaning of its noun).

@Will Crawford 2018-01-27 03:05:36

Sadly, this is nonsense. “This is a plan impossible” is what Hercules Poirot would say, it's not English grammar.

@Thursagen 2011-09-18 22:04:00

These are called post-positive adjectives:

A postpositive adjective is an adjective that appears after the noun that it modifies. In some languages this is the normal syntax, but in English it is rare, largely confined to archaic or institutional expressions. Aplenty, galore, and the informal extraordinaire are examples of adjectives that are primarily used postpositively in modern English. Name suffixes, such as Junior and Senior, also function as postpositive adjectives modifying proper names.

Why do they follow these nouns? Sometimes it is imperative for them to follow the nouns they modify. For example, in your example, there's a difference between "proper reptiles" and "reptiles proper". Taking a look at another example:

Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs)

That's why they are sometimes used after the nouns proper.

@Daniel 2011-09-18 22:06:36

+1 just for the name, but the rest isn't quite satisfying. Just because proper has a different meaning when it follows the noun doesn't make it obvious why the word order was invented in the first place.

@Peter Shor 2011-09-18 23:58:01

Here is some speculation about where "X proper" might have come from. From this heraldry website: ProperUsed in blazon to specify that a charge appears in its natural colors. "A zebra proper" has the zebra’s characteristic pattern of black and white stripes. "A tree proper" has a brown trunk and green leaves. Going from the heraldic meaning to the current meaning after a noun seems a relatively natural metaphor.

@Peter Shor 2011-09-19 00:01:47

And looking at the list of post-positive adjectives in the link, I suspect a large number of them were taken from French, where many more adjectives can appear after the noun.

@Mynamite 2013-04-02 00:12:16

@PeterShor Interesting about the heraldry. You're almost certainly right, given that 'proper' in French ('propre') means 'own' ie the zebra's own colours.

@Jascol 2016-02-08 16:55:00

@petershor that's an interesting theory, however there is also the more general category (A-I-7c in the OED) of "Strictly or accurately so called; in the strict use of the word; genuine, real. In later use freq. as postmodifier," which is separate from its heraldic meaning (A-II-5). It seems the reason for later use as a postmodifier is unclear.

@Peter Shor 2016-02-08 22:12:29

@Jascol: I would assume that meaning A-I-7c started being used as a post-modifier because of its similarity to the heraldic meaning. The early citations in the OED for this meaning are pre-modifiers, and you only see post-modifiers long after the heraldic usage was established.

@Edwin Ashworth 2016-08-03 19:57:00

'Sometimes it is imperative for them to follow the nouns they modify. For example, in your example, there's a difference between "proper reptiles" and "reptiles proper".' This implies that if an adjective has two different senses, its positioning must be different for each sense. But most words have more than one sense. 'Wicked' doesn't become post-positive for the 'great' sense. Daniel's comment is quite accurate.

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