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Does someone happen to have an explanation or theory for why in phrases like "the best method possible" the word 'possible' comes after the noun?

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I have no theory, but this also works with a few other adjectives: the sexiest man alive, the best data available, the most bizarre life imaginable. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 17 '11 at 17:44
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6 Answers 6

In English, adjectives normally precede their head, but other kinds of modifiers can follow:

the tallest person

but

the baby [which was] born on 11 June

(the 'which was' can be omitted).

A single adjective modifier cannot usually be placed afterwards, unless there is another modifier with an identifying function, in which case even a single adjective can move after:

the last man standing
the only site remaining
the best method possible

I think the construction requires that the two modifiers together are required to identify the individual (i.e. neither "the last man" nor "the man who is standing" would narrow it down). If the adjective precedes its head, as Sean says, it does not necessarily have this narrow meaning.

This doesn't answer "why" — few questions about language that ask "why" can be satisfactorily answered — but it gives some context.

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Hmm. I don't think "I think the construction requires that the two modifiers together are required to identify the individual" is right. For one thing, only in the only site remaining does not help identify the individual; rather it emphasizes that there are no others, which is already at least suggested by the definite article the. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 17 '11 at 16:45
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What difference in meaning do you see between the only site remaining and the only remaining site? To me they are interchangeable. I’m trying to imagine an actual situation where I could use one, but the other would be iffy or wrong. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 17 '11 at 16:48
    
@Jason Orendorff: as regards "identification", I think we are using the word in slightly different ways. I'm not talking about whether the sentence singles out an individual, not whether the sentence helps the hearer know which actually is the individual. In any of these, the speaker is implying that there is a particular individual that is identified, but in all of them the hearer will not know which without extraneous knowledge. As for the difference in meaning before and after, I'm not sure that there is always a difference, as you suggest. –  Colin Fine Jun 20 '11 at 11:09
    
I think you're saying: "the form 'superlative + noun + possible' implies that the phrase identifies a particular individual", but actually the superlative by itself is enough to imply that. In fact, the definite article the with a singular noun usually suffices. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 20 '11 at 15:30
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I do not think we have much evidence that the position of these adjectives is semantically determined. A few observations:

  • Short adjectives/participles are less likely to come after the noun. — [Cf. *"the only apple red was ...".]
  • It sounds a bit old fashioned with certain modifiers that nevertheless cannot come before the noun. — ["Apples so red that..." v. *"so red apples that..."]
  • But it sounds neutral with other, similar ones. — ["Apples this red are rare."]
  • I cannot think of an adjective-without-modifier that could occupy both positions but not in the same sentence.
  • In absolute constructions, the participle or adjective must come late, or it would sound archaic. — ["Her father out of town, she decided to clean the house." / "Her father dead, she left the city." / "Her father brutally murdered, she..." / "Her father still holding a grudge, she decided..."]
  • Where the adjective is modified by an adverbial constituent, late position seems compulsory, even with adjectives that cannot normally come late. [Cf. *"the fresh from the market apples".]

On this I base four tentative hypotheses:

  1. As an adjective has more verb-like characteristics, i.e. it behaves in some ways like a participle or relative clause, it is more likely to come after. The English/Latinate suffix -able/-ble is a good example. Adverbs have an inherent verbal aspect as well: they are unfit to modify a noun unless we imagine some implicit verb to carry them ("the people [being / who are] here are insane"). I could speculate and suggest that it might have something to do with a predicative function on a subordinate level.

  2. Late position may be (partly) motivated by (syntactical) balance inversion; that is, longer adjectives are more likely to come after the noun.

  3. If an adjective has a modifier that comes after it, the adjective phrase must come after the noun. This is probably related to balance inversion. — ["Apples fresh from the market."]

  4. There is a limited class of inherited expressions with fixed late position, like Secretary General and heir apparent. It may be that those were all formed under the influence of foreign languages, such as French, where late position is the norm, or it may have been more common in older English, or both.

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An excellent analysis, that goes beyond my own. I don't think that absolute constructions belong here, though because they are not NP's (not sure what they are in current theories). And I think your no 4. is very marginal: for many speakers, they are chunked and no longer contain a post-modifier. –  Colin Fine Jun 20 '11 at 11:16
    
This is really nice. Hypothesis #3 is confirmed by CGEL. Modifiers with post-head modifiers of their own do not occur before nouns in NPs, except arguably in some informal cases where the modifier gets strung together into a bespoke compound word: fresh-from-the-market apples. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 20 '11 at 15:41
    
I don’t think we have to “imagine some implicit verb” in the case of adverbs, like the people [who are] here, any more than in the other cases, like the best method [that is] possible or apples [that are] this red. We can imagine all sorts of things; but to me here is just a modifier following people in an NP. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 20 '11 at 15:55
    
Regarding “both positions but not in the same sentence”: The adjective proper has different meanings before and after a noun, so maybe that sort of fits the bill? That neighborhood is part of the city proper vs. That is not proper behavior. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 20 '11 at 15:58
    
It has nothing to do with shortness of the adjectives. The tastiest apple red doesn't work because this construction doesn't work with color adjectives. The tastiest apple ultramarine doesn't work either. –  Peter Shor Jul 23 '11 at 12:40
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In all of the examples given, the first adjective is either a comparative or an adjective like only or single, which restricts the number of possibilities to one, and it is possible to put a restrictive that is or who is in between the noun and the following adjective.

the best method (that is) possible
the sexiest man (that is) alive
the best data (that is) available
the most bizarre life (that is) imaginable
the last man (who is) standing
the only person (who is) present
the single feasible option (that is) remaining

What is happening is that a very short clause is being shortened to a single word.

This doesn't explain why you can't say the only apple red, since the only apple that is red works fine. English has a lot of different semantic classes of adjectives (see adjective order) and my supposition would be that it only works for some of these classes. It certainly doesn't work for size, color, or age adjectives.

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Good point about the 'exclusivity' of the first adjective allowing/requiring the second to follow the noun. But whilst I can't go along with @Sean Owen's 'possible' distinction, I have the distinct feeling there might be a usage where [optional] placement of the second adjective before/after the noun really does affect the meaning. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 13:13
    
...(I'm not nailing my colours to the mast on this one, but) might not The earliest usage undisputed imply more controversy than The earliest undisputed usage? –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 13:20
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To me, "the best method possible" means "among the methods that are possible, the one which is most good." I assume you are comparing to "the best possible method" which means to me "the method which is as good as any method can be".

If I want to get to Australia quickly, the best method possible is probably an aircraft. The best possible method is a teleporter.

Does anyone agree with that? I must say both are nearly interchangeable to my ears.

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I don't agree with that. They sound equivalent to me. –  Jason Orendorff Jun 17 '11 at 16:36
    
To me "best method possible" is less definite than "best possible method". –  James Jun 18 '11 at 7:53
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My speculation would be that in the pattern the superlative + noun + "possible" the word order is reversed on purpose to emphasize the possibility.

For example, This is the best photo possible emphasize, that a photo is the best that can be produced by any means; better would be impossible. This is the best possible photo mean almost the same, but without emphasis on "possible" it does not sound same.

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A superlative requires a definition of the class referred to; the tallest boy in the class is not usually the tallest boy in the school. Word order matters in that it attaches the definition to one of the other phrases; the method I know best is not the best method I know. (The method best I know is ambiguous, and so could only be used poetically, if at all). With single word definitions it doesn't usually matter whether the noun or the adjective is being qualified, so the best possible method is acceptable, though unusual; when the definition expands it is often confusing, and so wrong, to put it before; 'the best method possible in a Euclidean universe' can't reasonably be rephrased.

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I think OP is focussed on single-word adjective that can follow (and maybe also precede) the noun, so adjectival phrases like [who is] in the class, or [that] I know don't really count. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 13:28
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