I have come across the following sentence in a dictionary:

Though not very attractive physically, she possessed a good sense of humour.

I think the adverb "physically" postmodifies the adjective "attractive" to form the adjective phrase "attractive physically". But as far as I know the usual order is adverb(s) + adjective (where adverbs premodify an adjective), so I wonder if this is a special case and if there is a rule for it.

If I change the sentence to

Though not very physically attractive, she possessed a good sense of humour.

does this sound as good as the original sentence?

  • nope, the second sentence stresses the word 'physically' – plain jane Oct 18 '13 at 8:42
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    The word very is an intensifying adverb, modifying adjectives and other adverbs. Here it modifies 'attractive' and so they can't be separated in the sentence. Hence the sentence can be rewritten as "Though not physically very attractive, ..." – VijayaRagavan Oct 18 '13 at 8:50
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    'Can't be separated'? That depends on how much 'physically attractive' is seen as approaching lexical item status (eg the open compound noun 'traffic light' would never have a medial adjective). For 'intellectually challenged', Google shows that the tendency seems to be to emphasise thus: 'very intellectually challenged' rather than thus: 'intellectually very challenged'. Domain adjective-modifiers (physically attractive, mentally / follically challenged, genetically engineered, factually inaccurate, divinely appointed and locative universally admired) tend to be ungradable. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 18 '13 at 9:45
  • Attributive vs. predicative: ucl.ac.uk/internet-grammar/adjectiv/attribut.htm – gd1 Oct 18 '13 at 13:26
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    To my ear, "attractive physically" is emphasizing the word "physically." Here that could be intended because it contrasts the person's physical and personal attractiveness, i.e. she has an attractive personality but isn't that great looking. I see another commenter has written the exact opposite, and I suspect that it really depends on which word gets stressed when one reads it. The only caveat there is that "physically attractive" is more of a set phrase, much more common (roughly 10 times more common according to Google). As such, "attractive physically" stands out more. – jkmuller Oct 22 '13 at 19:41

I think you can stress physically with the words in either order:

  1a. Though not very physically attractive, [...]
  1b. Though not very attractive physically, [...]

But you can only stress attractive in the final position:

  2a. Though not very attractive physically, [...]
  2b. Though not very physically attractive, [...]

Example 2a sounds unnatural, so it's an unlikely reading. But although example 2b sounds possible, it's a reading that is contradicted by the rest of the sentence:

[...] she possessed a good sense of humour.

Unfortunately, the reader doesn't know that 2b is an incorrect reading until they read the rest of the sentence, so it's possible they may begin reading with the wrong stress pattern, then have to backtrack and re-read the sentence once they realize their mistake.

To avoid making the reader do that extra work, you can choose the sentence order that forces the stress onto physically, which is unambiguous:

Though not very attractive physically, she possessed a good sense of humor.

Of course, this problem only presents itself in writing. In speech, the intonation would be unambiguous.

Alternatively, you can solve the problem by indicating stress with italics or bold, as I did in the examples above. That prevents the ambiguity regardless of word order.

  • I think you've identified an important part of this. The converse case for your 'sense of humor' example would be something like this: Though not very physically attractive, she was very physically adventurous. I still think the very + X-ly sounds weird, though, and the sentence sounds much better thus: Though not physically attractive, she was physically adventurous. Maybe the problem is that the 'very' attaches itself as a modifier to closely to the 'physically', instead of the 'physically' + adj – Merk Oct 18 '13 at 9:35
  • @Merk you mean "too" closely? ;-) – Dhara Oct 18 '13 at 12:44
  • @snailboat It seems that the presence of the word very doesn't influence your choice between physically attractive and attractive physically. So can I assume that even without the word very your analysis would still be the same? – Maximin Oct 18 '13 at 16:47
  • @Maximin Yes, that's right. The word very being close to physically doesn't bother me. – snailboat Oct 18 '13 at 16:52
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    Issues of stress are strictly secondary. The key is that "not very attractive physically" immediately implies that she was attractive in some other way. – H Stephen Straight Oct 22 '13 at 21:29

In this case the author wants to contrast physical attractiveness with so to say "mental" attractiveness (good sense of humour). Placing the adverb in postposition helps achieve that, the intonation stressing of "physically" is easier and more natural like that. That's why, although the second sentence is correct, the first variant sounds better to me. In addition to that, it's more common to use the qualifier ("very") right before the word it describes.

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    This is an odd argument because the rules for acceptable word order are looser in speech since the emphasis is 'built into' the sound. Thus, one can perfectly well say "Though not very physically attractive, etc." I think the only difference in naturalness is on the page. – Merk Oct 18 '13 at 8:59

Addressing 'is there a rule for it?'

Let the people decide: (Google results)

"physically very attractive" 717 000

"very physically attractive" 738 000

"very attractive physically" 515 000

So the rule seems to be 'use whichever sounds acceptable to you'.

I'd add

(1) the proviso that there is little scope here for confusion as to what is meant - it is the attraction that is understood to be great, even when the grammar seems to indicate the 'physicalness' – and remember that English often treats strings as lexical items (ie one can't impose a ruling that 'very physically attractive' is syntactically wrong)

(2) stylewise, I prefer OP's first sentence to his restructure, though as other answers point out, with other related sentences it may be better to choose one of the other variants.

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    Outside of specific usage contexts, I think it's largely irrelevant how often these three words occur in different permutations. – FumbleFingers Oct 18 '13 at 11:24

The first sentence sounds better. I suspect the only rule at play here is that adverbs ending in '-y' should be separated where syntactically possible. This is simply a special case of the stylistic rule that you shouldn't repeat same-sounding words or same category parts of speech in succession. (e.g., blood bleeding from her wound (odd) vs. blood from her wound (ok) vs. blood seeping from her wound(ok))

For this reason I don't think the following two sound at all different in terms of 'naturalness':

Though not altogether attractive physically, ...

Though not altogether physically attractive, ...


(1) Though not quite attractive physically, ...

(2) Though not quite physically attractive, ...

If there's any difference in these examples it seems to be of the following character: (1) S/he's not that attractive, and it happens to be on physical grounds vs. (2) S/he's not that attractive, precisely on physical grounds. In other words, a very slight difference in focus.

  • What about "She is attractive physically." vs. "She is physically attractive."? Do these two sound equally natural to you? – Maximin Oct 18 '13 at 16:58
  • @Maximin Yep... – Merk Oct 19 '13 at 7:58

attractive physically emphasizes the fact that there "IS" something attractive about the object(a person in our case), but a question could still be posed "in what manner is the object attractive?" then that is when the adjective "physically" starts to have flesh onto it by describing the manner in which the object id found/seen to be attractive.

For : physically attractive it would be vise-versa

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