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I can ask any of:

Do you know a breakfast place nearby?
Do you know a nearby breakfast place?
Do you know a good breakfast place?

but I really can't ask:

Do you know a breakfast place good?

Is there a general rule for determining whether an adjective must come before the noun or may come, Spanish-style, after it?

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In "a place nearby", nearby is not an adjective. And you've actually made the steps to verify that yourself, by substituting a different word that unmistakably is an adjective, and getting an ungrammatical result. –  RegDwigнt Jul 28 '12 at 16:36
    
@RegDwightАΑA Oh? What word do you think it is that nearby applies to? It cannot apply to know, and you have scant few choices left. I see no difference between “a nearby breakfast place” and “a breakfast place nearby”. –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 16:39
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Yet “Do you know a place good for late breakfasts?” works just fine. –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 16:40
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@tchrist: in "a breakfast place nearby", nearby is an adverb of place. You can substitute it with somewhere, here, etc., or an adverbial phrase such as in Moscow. In your other example, "Do you know a place good for late breakfasts?", there is an omitted that is introducing a separate clause. It's a completely different construction altogether. That being said, things such as "The city beautiful" are possible in English. –  RegDwigнt Jul 28 '12 at 16:43
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@tchrist: That is a bold statement. In a place in India, it cannot be said that in India is an adjective. It is more complicated than that. –  Cerberus Jul 28 '12 at 16:59
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The general rule is

One-word modifiers precede the noun; modifiers of more than one word follow the noun.

I call this the Eleven-year-old boy rule.

If you make a single word out of a phrase, it can precede (that's what the hyphens are for in writing), but it's got different syntax, because preceding adjectives are not declined for number.

Note the plural years and singular year below:

  • A boy eleven years old rescued the princess.
  • An eleven-year-old boy rescued the princess.

If you pluralized the second year, or used singular year in the first, they'd be ungrammatical.

Nearby, while it is enough of a single word to precede, still retains enough independence in its two consituents near and by to follow, as well. It's in transition from one state to the other.

Language changes, word by word and phrase by phrase, as we continue to speak it. In fact, it changes because we continue to speak it.

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Nice. I believe that that also explains why you can say “the boy within” but not “the ∗within boy”, versus “the boy ∗inner” being disallowed in favor of “the inner boy”. Right? –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 17:38
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For a general rule which even copes with oddities like nearby this is beautifully elegant! –  Andrew Leach Jul 28 '12 at 17:58
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True; that sentence is not grammatical. But years old is not a constituent, while eleven years and eleven years old are constituents. One can't just delete numbers anywhere one wishes; syntactic rules only apply to constituents. Plus, punctuation is not present in language, only in writing, and has nothing to do with grammar. –  John Lawler Jul 28 '12 at 18:10
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@NewAlexandria You are mistaken: John’s own sentence is perfectly grammatical in English. “A boy eleven years old should be tall enough to play” and similar versions are perfectly fine. –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 18:10
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@NewAlexandria: the commas around 'eleven years old' are determined by whether it's a restrictive or non-restrictive clause; tchrist's example (unlike John Lawler's) was chosen so it must be a restrictive clause, which means you cannot put commas around it. –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 18:18
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You are missing the role of 'that/which' in proper grammatical construction:

The locations:

"Do you know a breakfast place, which is nearby?"

"Do you know a breakfast place that is nearby?"

"Do you know a nearby breakfast place?"

The qualities:

"Do you know a good breakfast place?"

to switch these, you must ask:

"Do you know a breakfast place that is good?"

"Do you know a breakfast place, which is good?"

Your question presents a wonderful example of what people often call a "problem" with the English language — which in reality is a problem with the colloquial use of the English language.

(p.s. in some sense location can present as much of a qualification as food excellence, but most people will not be so technical in their thinking)

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What the heck are you talking about with this allegedly “proper” business? You don’t somehow make a sentence more correct by sticking in a bunch of extra words. –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 18:15
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Ah, you appear to be referring to the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses. That distinction turns out not to be relevant in this case. –  John Lawler Jul 28 '12 at 18:17
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@tchrist your down-vote goes too far. This usage is original, not the way that we have come to use the language (here in the US). It is true that "Do you know a breakfast place that is good?" is correct grammar, and show the correct form of that arrangement, as sought by the OP –  New Alexandria Jul 28 '12 at 18:22
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Looks like you got three downvotes, Alex my dear. Whom else are you planning to accuse? And what is this nutty “in the US” business about? You have a rotten sense for correctness and propriety and formalism and region, misleading you into saying completely ludicrous things. It is not some special characteristic of American English to speak colloquially or “improperly” as you seem to claim. Nor is what you call colloquial in any fashion substandard, abnormal, ungrammatical, or wrong. You’re just making stuff up. –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 18:23
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I can't agree with this answer - it doesn't seem to cover the relevant point, which is that nearby can be used as an adjective or an adverb. –  Matt Эллен Jul 28 '12 at 18:53
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