In some more or less archaic texts I found the order of noun and its adjective reversed at times, like:

I traveled through nights starless, and roads unmapped.

I wonder, is it a stylistic tool used only in poetic/artistic texts, or was it used in day-to-day speech or formal, but not poetic writing in the past?

  • Well, participle phrases are almost always after the noun: a girl running home to her mother, a fridge well-stocked with libations, glamorous vistas never before seen by white men, people always wanting more. – tchrist Apr 2 '14 at 18:34
  • I mean specifically the bare epithets - just plain noun-adjective, no extras. – SF. Apr 2 '14 at 18:39
  • Certainly in the last hundred years or so, its use has been restricted to the poetic—or, more usually, to the facetious. Before then it might have had some use in normal speech, but I can't think of any examples. I suspect it was always a jokey way of putting on a slightly elevated tone, as in W.S. Gilbert's "Roses white and roses red". – Terpsichore Apr 2 '14 at 18:53
  • Other than isolated titles, like Attorney General, that were adopted from French, I can't think of examples of this structure in every day speech even in the past. – michelle Apr 2 '14 at 19:07
  • @michelle - the road untaken? – Oldcat Apr 2 '14 at 22:06

I believe that adjectives have never been postposed in English, the only exceptions being those noted in the comments: titles and legal terms adapted from the French (court martial, major general, heir apparent) and adjectives and participles with their own postposed complements and adjuncts.

The mannerism is tolerable in some poetic registers, but otherwise has an artsiness that will make most readers cringe. Graves and Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder, under ‘Principle P’ of ‘The Graces of Prose’, quote a passage from an article by Ivor Brown:

   News comes of the death of a clown absolute . . . one of a dynasty adored . . . The clown absolute is quite a different person from the actor-droll.

G&H comment, ‘(Yes, quite a person different.)’

‘Even when the natural order of words is modified for the sake of emphasis, a sentence must not read unnaturally’

  • I think your answer is restricted to proper adjectives only, and not postnominal participles, which are more often found in English. Shouldn't we consider the OP's example use of 'unmapped' as a participle? – CoolHandLouis Jun 22 '14 at 19:37
  • @CoolHandLouis Participles are naturally postnominal when they take complements. But note the "dynasty adored" in the Ivor Brown quote. (Me, I had just enough Classical education to be dangerous - I take 'absolute' and 'different' to be participles, too!) – StoneyB Jun 22 '14 at 19:41
  • Yes but your answer is a fairly emphatic "no" with some exceptions but it excludes lone postpostiive participles as common and normal. Otherwise, I would agree with your answer as being more canonically correct. Shall I review your posts and find a few such examples? (Joking) BTW, how are 'absolute' and 'different' participles? Perhaps you could give a reference? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge! – CoolHandLouis Jun 22 '14 at 21:34
  • @CoolHandLouis I look, for instance, at F.E.'s list and I see mostly a mixture of a) adjectives and participles with deleted complements b) fossil titles and c) clichés. Ablaze, alive, asleep I grant you; but these are fossils of a different sort: contractions of OE prepositional phrases which have never stood before the noun - you can't speak of 'reversal' or 'inversion' there. – StoneyB Jun 22 '14 at 21:52

It looks like your question is about a noun being postpositively modified by an adjective or adjective phrase. (E.g. members [dissatisfied with the board's decision].) This is part of today's standard English -- as to how this usage was used in the past, you'll probably want others to provide you that info.

Here are some examples, w.r.t. today's standard English:

  • the only day suitable, years past, proof positive, matters financial, all things Irish

  • the people present, the cars involved, the students concerned, the city proper

  • the heir apparent, the body politic, the president elect, the devil incarnate, the poet laureate, a notary public

  • the house currently ablaze, all people now alive, the ones asleep

The above examples are borrowed from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pages 445-6.

EDITED: We use this type of construction often, but probably don't really realize that we do. For instance, "The only day suitable for us will be this coming Thursday."

  • It seems to be used to place extra emphasis on the adjective. – Wlerin Apr 2 '14 at 20:21
  • @Wlerin Yes, if the adjective is usually attributive (before the noun), then the writer could place it after the noun in an attempt to draw attention to it. But we need to keep in mind that some adjectives can not be placed attributively -- and some adjectives have a different meaning depending on whether they are attributively or postpostively placed. – F.E. Apr 2 '14 at 20:28
  • I might point out that many of your postpronomial adjectives-proper are collocations/idiomatic and as such, are more like compound words (heir apparent, body politic, president elect, etc.). It's not so common to freely allow a proper adjective to follow the noun. Some other examples you give are postnominal particples, which are more common (cars involved, students concerned). – CoolHandLouis Jun 22 '14 at 19:46

Your examples are certainly of the poetic/affect type. However in general, your question is mixing (at least) two types of post-noun adjectives: the proper adjectives (like "starless" which is itself based on a noun) and the adjectival participle ("unmapped").

In the first case, I agree with @StoneyB: proper adjectives won't normally follow nouns. When they do so in modern English, they tend to be collocated/idiomatic forms:1

  • That is the worst **choice imaginable.
  • This is the best room available.
  • Men have been in war with one another since time immemorial.

On the other hand, postpositive participles are common in modern English:2

Furthermore, the following examples show that postpositive participles are found in ordinary English:

  • Many of the species involved are listed internationally as endangered.
  • The product used was made by boiling a quantity of hops with treacle,….
  • Because of this the skill required is often very challenging, but it is not the skill of the performer.
  • The amount of detail given will have to be appropriate to the type of system installed.
  • All efforts made will be doomed to failure for a number of reasons.
  • The issues raised are more diverse and just as difficult.
  • Discussion was wide ranging and the ideas produced were rich and varied.

See also my answer to a related question here https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/26774/3796.

1. Examples from http://myorganisedchaos.net/tag/postpositive-adjectives/
2. Postpositive Past Participles Used on Their Own (Furuta, Yae, International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, Vol 2, No. 6, 2012).

  • You can’t (readily, easily) expand a participle that’s modifying a noun into a participial phrase except by placing the participle after the noun. – tchrist Jun 22 '14 at 20:21

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