In an inflected language like German or Latin, word order within a sentence isn’t necessarily all that important, a reader can tell which adjective modifies which noun by the endings of the words. In English, however, word order is crucial to the clear conveyance of meaning. As a result, it’s important to understand the basic rules that govern the positioning of an adjective in relation to the noun it modifies.
Grasping the Basics
In most cases, an adjective directly precedes or directly follows the noun it is intended to qualify. Placing an adjective directly before the noun it modifies is the most common practice. For example: “The blue bed is upstairs.” In this case the adjective “blue” modifies the noun “bed.” According to the 16th edition of the “Chicago Manual of Style,” however, the noun might come first for the sake of stylistic emphasis: “I recognized her face, forlorn.” Keep in mind that while this is considered correct usage, it's a practice best used in poetic writing rather than more common prose.
A predicate adjective modifies a subject but follows a sentence’s primary verb. For example: “The car is yellow”. In this instance, the adjective “yellow” modifies the noun “car” and follows the verb “is.” This is the most common case in which an adjective follows a noun that it modifies. It’s even possible that the noun and adjective are separated by quite a few words if there’s another clause in between them. For example: “The car, which Bill bought yesterday, is yellow.”
Pronouns are like stand-ins for garden variety nouns; they refer back to a noun that has been introduced earlier in a sentence or paragraph. Common pronouns include “him,’ “her,” “he,” “she,” and “them.” More often than not, an adjective follows the pronoun it is intended to qualify. For example: “The teacher considered him brilliant.” In this case, the adjective “brilliant” follows and modifies the pronoun “him.”
Part of what makes English such a challenging language for non-native speakers to learn is that while there are lots of rules, there are plenty of exceptions as well. This applies, no less, to the positioning of adjectives in relation to the nouns they modify. While adjectives generally precede the nouns they describe, there are certain noun-adjective couplets that reverse the standard order. According to the “Chicago Manual of Style,” “court-martial” is a familiar example. While it’s not technically incorrect to write “martial court," this counts as a departure from standard usage. There are also colloquial expressions that reverse the typical order. For example, the use of the indefinite pronoun “something” often follows an adjective that modifies it. Consider the following cases: “something wonderful," “something terrifying” or “something awesome.”
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition; section 580
Based in New York City, Ivan Kenneally has been writing about politics, education and American culture since 2006. His articles have appeared in national publications like the 'Washington Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Cosmopolitan"and "Esquire." He has an Master of Arts in political theory from the New School for Social Research.