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I saw the word ‘secondhand’ come after ‘things’ in the lead copy of July 17 Time magazine’s article, titled “10 Things You Should Be Buying Used”, as follows.

Buying things secondhand can save a few bucks and help keep junk out of our landfills.

Though I think ‘secondhand’ is used adverbially, and modifies ‘buying’ here, “Buying things secondhand can save a few bucks’ was confusing to me at the first because I took ‘secondhand’ for a post-position to ‘things.’

Although it’s essentially a matter of taste, isn’t it more straightforward and plain to say ‘Buy secondhand things,’ ‘I bought a secondhand book’, ‘I bought a second hand car at a used-car shop,’ ‘I got firsthand (secondhand) news from my colleague,’ rather than saying ‘Buy things secondhand,’ ‘I bought a book secondhand,’ ‘I bought a car secondhand at a used-car shop,’ and ‘I got the news firsthand (secondhand) from my colleague.’?

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2 Answers 2

I think you can look at this from a standpoint of emphasis and presupposition. When you put the modifier after the noun, you make it clear that it's the modifier that's the new information; everything else is presupposed (assumed beforehand). You can also make that clear by using inflection to emphasize the adjective or by making the contrast explicit: "Buy second hand things [instead of new things]."

You can think of the statements as answering different questions. (The question might not literally be asked: it might be implied by the information required in the situation, which is why there are situations, like this one, in which either construction would work.)

  1. How should I buy things in order to save money? [The question implies you're already planning to buy things.] Buy things secondhand.

  2. What should I do in order to save money? [You're not aiming in any particular direction.] Buy second-hand things.

Or, to take a different example:

  1. How does she take coffee? [The question implies we already know she likes coffee.] She likes coffee black.

  2. What does she like to drink? [We have no idea if she likes coffee.] She likes black coffee.

The presuppositions in (1) and (3) are that you buy things and that she drinks coffee, and the answers being given address how (second-hand, not new; black, not sweetened). This works in the second-hand situation in the magazine article because the reader probably does buy things, so the presupposition is accurate. If the advice were "save money by buying telegraph equipment second-hand," it would seem odd because it would presuppose that the average reader regularly purchases telegraph equipment. Essentially, the message is "When do you buy things [which you already do], buy them secondhand," whereas "Buy secondhand things" connotes "Buy things [maybe you don't already?], and buy those things secondhand."

In this case, I would say that the adjective-second construction is slightly more suited to the situation because in the unlikely event that you don't currently buy things, taking up a habit of buying second-hand things won't save you money. The money-saving property comes specifically from the contrast with buying things new, and this construction highlights that contrast.

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Buying things secondhand refers to the habit of searching for and ultimately purchasing used items. As you said, secondhand modifies buying, so this construct emphasizes the deliberate buying habits of the individual.

With buying secondhand things, however, secondhand becomes an adjective modifying things, so the word is describing to the items being bought, rather than the kind of shopping being done.

The difference is very subtle. Either would be acceptable English, neither would be deemed awkward or incorrect, and the meaning of both essentially boil down to the same thing.

As for everyday usage, and what sounds more "straightforward and plain," I think that secondhand is one of those words that, when used in its adverbial form, often slides in nicely at the end of a sentence or phrase – perhaps because moving it before the object would morph it into an adjective. In fact, Merriam-Webster lists this example usage for the adverb: bought the couch secondhand; NOAD mentions: tips to avoid when buying secondhand.

You've raised an interesting question, but my native ears don't find anything awkward or complicated about how that sentence was written.

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To my native ears, the difference is huge. buying secondhand things has the connotation that the things being bought are somehow inferior to brand new. While buying things secondhand has the connotation that there's nothing wrong with the things being bought and it's probably a good deal. I would be very careful about which version I used and when. –  Jim Jul 17 '12 at 5:42
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@Jim, that's an interesting yet subtle distinction, although there's nothing in the definitions of those three words that would make that an "official" interpretation. As an example, consider a college student who is buying secondhand textbooks (vs. buying textbooks secondhand): I don't think I'd choose one phrasing over the other based on the quality of the books, but maybe that's just me. However, if I worked in the marketing dept of a secondhand book business, it would behoove me to choose between the two more carefully, lest some pick up connotations such as what you described. –  J.R. Jul 17 '12 at 8:34

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