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I was recently asked to choose which of following two excerpts sounded better:

Emotionally vulnerable and incarnate of self-sacrifice, the Tenth Doctor wavered between romantic and intensely protective relationships with his companions.

Emotionally vulnerable and self-sacrifice incarnate, the Tenth Doctor wavered between romantic and intensely protective relationships with his companions.

I'm fairly certain this is a Dr. Who reference.

I argued that, even if the first one was changed to read "Emotionally vulnerable and incarnation of self-sacrifice," the second one was a better choice as "self-sacrifice incarnate" is an (compound?) adjective, where "incarnation of self-sacrifice" is a noun (right?).

But, even though I'm pretty sure the second choice is the better of the two, I can't explain why. In fact, I can't even explain what to call this whole thing. The programmer in me won't let me rest until I know what it is, how it should be used and, potentially/if necessary, why. I've spend the last 30 minutes Googling away for an answer to no avail -- primarily because I'm not sure for what it is I'm searching.

So, to summarize: Which wording should be used and why? Moreover, what are these types of descriptors called?

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The adjective incarnate is used in an appositional or appositive adjectival phrase in your first example:

? Emotionally vulnerable and incarnate of self-sacrifice, the Tenth Doctor wavered between romantic and intensely protective relationships with his companions.

The adjectival phrase modifies the subject, the Tenth Doctor. It is similar to simple sentences like this:

Extremely disappointed, she turned around and left.

This construction is normally only used when the phrase is longer than one or two syllables, so you would not normally see the following in a novel, even though it is perhaps not strictly ungrammatical:

? Angry, she left the room.


As to the word incarnate, this adjective is usually limited in use to a very specific sequence:

  • [person] is [property or archetype] incarnate(used as a postpositional adjective)

  • [person] is the/an incarnate of [property or archetype] — (used as a noun; less common outside a religious context)

So you could say she is the devil incarnate, meaning "she is the devil in (new) flesh", the word incarnate strictly meaning "embodied, (made) in the flesh". The adjective modifies a noun that is not normally present in the flesh, such as an abstract quality or a dead person. A few more examples:

Breivik is Hitler incarnate.

He is the incarnate of Vishnu.

My mother is loquacity incarnate.

The Tenth Doctor is self-sacrifice incarnate.


The word incarnation can mean a thing or person incarnate, and you would normally use it with an article:

  • [person] is a/the incarnation of [property or archetype]

The same applies to using incarnate as a noun followed by of x. A nominal/noun phrase—a phrase that functions as a noun and can replace a noun in a sentence—can also be used in apposition, as in to this simple sentence:

An experienced teacher, she immediately spotted the cheater's tiny note on his pen.

It is, again, not normally used with a noun phrase that is just a single noun. Your example lacks an article, which I would consider compulsory, because incarnation is a countable noun here:

Emotionally vulnerable and the/an incarnation of self-sacrifice, ...

Emotionally vulnerable and the/an incarnate of self-sacrifice, ...

However, the construction x incarnate is probably the most common one, and the one I would recommend, even though the other two are also perfectly acceptable:

Emotionally vulnerable and self-sacrifice incarnate, the Tenth Doctor wavered between romantic and intensely protective relationships with his companions.

This has nothing to do with the adjectival or nominal nature of the appositional phrase per se, because both kinds of appositional phrase are perfectly fine in general.

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Wow... Very informative. Thanks. :) –  Ceiu Nov 15 '13 at 20:16
    
It may be worth noting that "X incarnate" is generally used where X is not a carnal being (even "Hitler incarnate" because he's dead); and that it's a set phrase and incarnate in this use always appears as a post-positive adjective. I rather like "loquacity incarnate" and will endeavour to use it! –  Andrew Leach Nov 15 '13 at 20:25
    
@AndrewLeach: Thanks! You are graciousness incarnate. I've added "dead person" and "postpositional". –  Cerberus Nov 15 '13 at 20:38
    
The restriction on the appositional / appositive adjectival phrase (though I'd call it an absolute adjectival phrase) is perhaps weight- rather than word-count-dependent: ?Angry, she left the room. // Flabbergasted, she left the room. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 20 '13 at 0:03
    
@EdwinAshworth: Right, replaced "single word" with "one or two syllables. I would not call such a phrase absolute, because it modifies something, in casu the subject. An absolute phrase has to be vaguely adverbial in my book. –  Cerberus Nov 20 '13 at 0:45
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