Friday, November 5, 2010

Some guideposts for positioning adjectives in English sentences

Adjectives are arguably the most troublesome part of speech of the English language. They can wreak havoc on the meaning of our statements when we position them improperly in particular phrases, clauses, or sentences. Wrongly positioned adjectives result in faulty modification jobs that can give rise to bizarre noun forms, unexpectedly absurd and out-of-this-world ideas or situations, or—at the very least—embarrassing dangling or squinting modifiers.

Are there practical rules and guidelines for avoiding these pitfalls in adjective usage? There are several of them, of course, but I must say that they are not simple nuts-and-bolts grammar rules but conceptual semantic guideposts intricately woven into the writing craft itself. At any rate, in a two-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in December 2009, I attempted to put some science—perhaps “system” is a less prepossessing and intimidating word—to the positioning of adjectives in English. I did so by discussing some frequently encountered adjective placement dilemmas, after which I gave systematic prescriptions for surmounting them.

For the benefit of Forum members and guests, I have now combined that two-part essay into one and posted it in this week’s edition of the Forum. (November 6, 2010)

Positioning adjectives in English

Sometime last month, I came across this peculiar headline in the online news website of a local TV network (italicization mine): “Novice cop accidentally shoots dead roommate in Makati.” What struck me about this bit of news was, of course, the utter improbability of it all—something worthy of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” or some other compendium of the bizarre. For whether cop or noncop, and whether the deed was accidental or intentional, who in his right mind would shoot an already dead person who happens to be his very own roommate? As it turned out, though, the victim was still alive when he was shot. The news report itself said so later in the story: “A new police recruit found himself in hot water* after his service firearm accidentally went off and killed his roommate in Makati City Monday night.”

The culprit behind that misleading news headline is, of course, the improper positioning of the adjective “dead” in the sentence. By sandwiching “dead” between the verb “shoots” and the noun “roommate,” the headline writer conveyed the wrong idea that the roommate was already dead before he was shot. This was because, as what sometimes happens in adjective misuse, the headline writer neglected to take logic and chronology into account in positioning the adjective. Indeed, a more logical position for that adjective—even if the position looks suspicious and sounds questionable itself—is after the noun “roommate,” as in this version: “Novice Makati cop accidentally shoots roommate dead.”

Having been a newspaper journalist myself, however, I know only too well that some news editors and many readers would also frown on that version. To them, the sentence “Novice Makati cop accidentally shoots roommate dead” would be as inexplicably difficult to analyze and defend grammatically as this other alternative, “Novice Makati cop accidentally shoots roommate to death.” They would argue that the former means almost the same thing as the original construction, while the latter creates the false impression that the shooting was done repeatedly until the victim was surely dead.

In fact, I think one of the very few constructions of that headline that could override all objections from the grammar, semantic, and logic standpoints is the following rewrite, which I admittedly arrived at after so many tries: “Novice Makati cop kills roommate in accidental shooting.”

In any case, we need to make ourselves much better equipped to handle adjective placement dilemmas like this by clearly understanding how to position adjectives properly in the English language. To get started, let’s first recall that as a rule, adjectives normally take either of two positions in a sentence: immediately before a noun, or after the main verb in a sentence.
An adjective that precedes the noun it modifies is called an attributive adjective, as the ones used in the following sentences: “Excellent weather is forecast for this weekend.” “The explorers found ancient drawings in the cave.” “We were amazed by his sharp mind.”

On the other hand, an adjective that comes right after the main verb in a sentence is called a predicate adjective, as the ones used in the following sentences: “The weather forecast for this weekend is excellent.” “To the explorers, the cave drawings appeared ancient.” “Despite great fatigue, the professor’s mind remained sharp.”

Note that a predicate adjective is always separated by a verb from the noun it modifies, and that verb is always a linking verb, like “is” (the singular present tense form of “be”), “appeared,” and “remained” in the predicate-adjective-using sentences above. Remember now that a linking verb, unlike, say, the action verb “jump,” doesn’t denote action; it simply connects a subject to additional information about itself.

It would be so simple to use adjectives if they can take only the two normal positions described above, but this, unfortunately, isn’t the case in practice. They can sometimes take various other positions in a sentence—and this is why they can sometimes get misplaced and wreak semantic havoc on sentences.

Here are those other positions in a sentence that can be taken by adjectives:

When they form part of a reduced relative clause, some adjectives can take a position immediately after a noun. Recall now that a relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun and is introduced by a relative pronoun such as “who,” “that,” and “which,” as in this sentence: “Please summon all the managers who are concerned.” Here, the relative clause “who are concerned” can be reduced by dropping the words “who are,” thus making the adjective “concerned” immediately follow the noun “managers”: “Please summon all the managers concerned.” (We don’t say, “Please summon all the concerned managers,” a form that uses “concerned” as an attributive adjective.)

Another example is when we reduce the relative clause “that is available” in the sentence “Please use all the money that is available.” This makes the adjective “available” immediately follow the noun “money”: “Please use all the money available.” (We don’t normally say, “Please use all the available money.”)

When an adjective modifies an indefinite pronoun, the adjective comes after the pronoun. This rule, which should already be second nature to all of us, applies to the indefinite pronouns “something,” “someone,” “somebody,” “somewhere,” “everyone,” “everybody,” “everything,” “anybody,” and “nobody”—and the adjective placement can’t be done in any other way. Examples: “Something wonderful happened to me last night.” “They went somewhere private.” “Nobody hungry wasn’t given the free meal.”

Note that indefinite pronouns immediately followed by an adjective are actually also reduced relative clauses; “something wonderful,” for instance, is the reduced form of the phrase “something that was wonderful” in the sentence “Something that was wonderful happened to me last night.”
Certain adjectives that describe size or age immediately follow a noun that denotes a unit of measurement. All of us should be thoroughly familiar with this usage, which applies to such sentences as “The Eiffel Tower is 325 meters high,” where the adjective “high” follows the noun form “325 meters”; and to such sentences as “The boxing champion is 29 years old,” where the adjective “old” follows the noun form “29 years.”

In some cases, adjectives can be placed after the noun for emphasis. Just two examples should suffice: “It was a mistake, plain and simple.” “They do all jobs, big and small.”              
Some adjectives can be positioned either before or after a noun, but the position affects their meaning. In the sentence “The responsible professors talked to the dean about the problem,” for instance, the noun phrase “the responsible professors” means “the professors who are trustworthy.” In contrast, in “The professors responsible talked to the dean about the problem,” the noun phrase “the professors responsible” means “the professors who are to blame for something.”

Postpositive or post-nominal adjectives always come after the noun they modify. These are adjectives like “royal” in “battle royal” (“The five friends fought and got themselves into a battle royal.”), “apparent” in “heir apparent” (“The heir apparent to the political dynasty refused to run for prime minister.”), “politic” in “body politic” (“The strongman’s reign was anathema to the body politic.”), and “immemorial” in “time immemorial” (The pyramids of Egypt have been there since time immemorial.”).

There are but a few postpositive adjectives in English—they are mostly name suffixes (like “incarnate” in “the devil incarnate”) and traditional expressions (like “aplenty” in “food aplenty”)—but it’s important to recognize them to avoid the embarrassment of misplacing them in our sentences. (December 6 and 12, 2009)

*I find the “found himself in hot water” metaphor in this news story bizarre, terribly inappropriate, and self-indulgent on the part of the reporter or editor. It gives the wrong impression that the gunshot must have also punctured a hot-water pipe, which then spung a leak on the gunman. This is language that I think should be absolutely avoided in journalism, but let’s reserve discussion of this for some other day. Your own thoughts about this would be most welcome, of course.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 6 and 12, 2009 issues © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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