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I was helping a friend with an ESL test, and the question was looking for the answer "Practice can make a person skillful at what he does". One of the students answered with "Practice can make a skillful person at what he does", and my friend asked if this was definitively wrong, and why. I didn't have a definitive answer, other than "I think it's wrong because it sounds awkward." Is there a grammar rule that can clarify this?

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    There is a verb implied in the example construction: become. "Practice makes a person (become) skillful at what he does." By moving the adjective to a position now modifying the man, you are left with becoming nothing: "Practice makes a skillful man (become) _ ? _ at what he does." That's why it sounds awkward. He's misplaced the adjective. Try a shorter sentence: "Envy makes a man (become) petty." Misplace the adjective: "Envy makes a petty man (become) _ ? _." Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 7:22
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    I like Envy makes a petty man. I'll attribute it to medica.
    – user63230
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 7:45

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In the first example, the portion of the sentence under question is "to make (something) skillful". It can be broken down roughly like this:

(Practice can) (make (a person) skillful) (at what he does)

The placement before a noun of "skillful" in the second sentence, however, has removed it from the verb, and reduced it to a simple adjective.

(Practice can) (make (a skillful person) ...) (at what he does)

Since the idea of "making a skillful person at what he does" makes no sense, a native speaker is left with a feeling that the sentence is incomplete. Practice makes a skillful person what at what he does? I add the ellipsis to show where the gap is.

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  • In the second example 'skillful' is merely an adjective describing 'person', so the sentence is meaningless. The only verb is 'make'. But in the first example 'skillful' is working as part of the verb 'to make skillful'. So it is clear what is being said.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 7:08
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    @WS2 That's a better rationale. I'll adjust my breakdown appropriately.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 7:32

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