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When I was traveling in Vietnam 15 years ago, I had great fun discovering on mineral water bottles the proud advertisement Free bacteria!.

Is it common in English that the position of the adjective (before or after a word) changes drastically the meaning of the sentence? I'd like to read more examples.

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closed as not constructive by z7sg Ѫ, Marthaª, Hugo, kiamlaluno, Jasper Loy Nov 19 '11 at 0:07

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At the same time, are there bacterias, free or otherwise? – Kris Nov 16 '11 at 11:49
-3 ? What's the problem with this question ? – Pierre Nov 17 '11 at 14:53
@Pierre: the problem might be that it is hard to get the problem. – Mitch Nov 17 '11 at 16:17
Wait, does that mean all those cars are Mumia-Free? – JeffSahol Nov 17 '11 at 19:58
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The word order matters here. Usually, adjectives go before nouns.

  • Bacteria-Free means "does not contain bacteria".
  • Free Bacteria means "bacteria which does not cost money" or "bacteria which are not slaves".

In general, you should always assume that the word order matters.

  • race car -> a car that races
  • car race -> a race with cars in it.
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+1 for "bacteria which are not slaves" – FumbleFingers Nov 17 '11 at 18:04
It could also be a rallying cry, e.g. "Free Tibet!" I'm not sure that I want to drink that water, then. – Wayne Werner Nov 17 '11 at 22:28

In English, adjectives almost always go before the noun. The 'red balloon', the 'big ball', the 'furious green ideas'.

There are some set phrases or more poetic sequences where it is allowed to have the adjective after the noun: 'attorney general', 'notary public', 'time immemorial'. The meaning would be preserved by having the adjective as normally in front of the noun, but for whatever cultural reasons the postpositive version is what is used.

(as an aside, since this is probably the motivation of the question: to contrast, in some languages, adjectives can go in front or after a noun, and for the same adjective have different meanings: but 'propre amour' means 'proper love' but 'amour propre' - means self-esteem ('self love') )

In the example you gave 'free bacteria', you are presumably and reasonably thinking that this corresponds in a similar way as in French to 'bacteria free'. But really this is not -in general- an allowable choice (of swapping before and after) but rather different grammatical process is going on.

'free bacteria'

is an adjective followed by a noun or


In contrast,

'bacteria free'

is a transformation of 'free of bacteria' ADJ PREP NOUN, so really even though it comes out as


it is really the noun modifying the adjective: what kind of free is it? it is the 'bacteria' kind of free. So it is not in free alternation between a pre- and post-position, rather a transformation that coincidentally looks like the alternation.

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I suppose it could be argued that this oder makes "bacteria" the adjective and "free" the noun. I think I'd rather try to make the argument that there is an implicit "This is" at the front, and thus "free" is acting as an adverb, and "bacteria" as an adjective modifying the adverb. Most likely though this is all just logical contortions to try to make the language theory fit the actual language. – T.E.D. Nov 17 '11 at 19:00
@T.E.D.: Yes I think that explanation works, too. The main point (obscured by details) is that the 'free bacteria' mistake does not show that English is like French. – Mitch Nov 17 '11 at 21:23

One example could be (just out of imagination):

You won't get free alcohol here, but if you have at least 100 $, you can try this alcohol-free energy-drink.

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I agree with @Jasper Loy. For example,"sense-less or something which makes less sense", means almost the same.Hence, there are exceptions, now it is completely based on the listener's perspective as to what he/she considers as exception. – samridhi Nov 16 '11 at 11:39
senseless and less sense don't mean the same thing. senseless means "without sense" while "less sense" means "not as much sense (compared to some reference). – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 16 '11 at 14:30

There is also a possibility (albeit remote), that the water was enhanced with probiotics at no additional charge. Somehow I doubt the Vietnamese are quite as precious about their water as we Californian's but I have seen probiotics, AKA "friendly bacteria" advertised in bottled drinks and drink mixes lately. It's an alternate theory for the source of the confusion.

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