As I don't know the exact linguistic terms, what I mean my "preceding" and "succeeding" in modifying nouns is as follows.

Preceding : delicious food, long way, kind person, et cetera
Succeeding : faculty of science, land of despair, a book that changed my mind, et cetera

English seems to accept both ways of modification.

Sometimes, either way will not make a difference.
department of science == science department
a burning book == a book burning

At other times, changing the order will still make sense but be somewhat awkward or bizarre.
Kentucky Fried Chicken ?= Chicken Fried in Kentucky
free as in free speech ?= as-in-free-speech free

When writing English, I tend to use more the preceding modification style because my native language Korean is quite strictly precedingly modifying.
"빠른 판단을 바탕으로 한 재치있는 응수" directly translates to "a quick-decision-based clever response" rather than "a clever response based on a quick decision"

French as well as other Latin-originated languages seems to be succeedingly modifying.
Académie Française, Poulet Frit du Kentucky

while German and Dutch more often use preceding modification.

Well, this mixture in English allows rich style with various ways of expression, but it does often make a non-native English speaker be a little confused. Is there any subtle but general difference between these 2 ways? Or is it just simply case-by-case. Any guidance will help.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Kris, Robusto, Araucaria, Chenmunka, WS2 Oct 20 '14 at 20:50

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  • 2
    Burning books and book burnings are hardly the same thing. – tchrist Oct 19 '14 at 3:40
  • Whoa! One question at a time. Can you post a new question picking up one item to start with? This has to go as too-broad. (I was actually tempted to start answering but sorry, that would be beyond the scope of a Q&A page such as this.) – Kris Oct 19 '14 at 6:36
  • Here’s an interesting little article on left/right branching of English sentences as a matter of style. – tchrist Oct 19 '14 at 16:33

Branching, Premodifiers, and Postmodifiers

I believe that what you are looking for here is whether a particular structure, in this case a noun phrase, should happen to be a left-branching structure or a right-branching one. English does indeed have both kinds, but there are rules about which ones go where: adjectives to the left, phrases to the right.

With left-branching structures, the head of that structure comes at the very end, and things modifying its head come “before” it. Consider a noun phrase such as this one:

My little brother’s three favorite toy fire trucks

That structure is left-branching and head-final because all the modifiers of the head noun truck occur to its left. In an English noun phrase, all determiners — like articles, demonstratives, possessives, quantifiers, and numbers — along with almost all adjectives necessarily precede their head noun. The Wikipedia article on noun phrases states this as follows:

The allowability, form, and position of these elements depend on the syntax of the language in question. In English, determiners, adjectives (and some adjective phrases) and noun modifiers precede the head noun, whereas the heavier units – phrases and clauses – generally follow it. This is part of a strong tendency in English to place heavier constituents to the right, making English more of a head-initial language. Head-final languages (e.g. Japanese and Turkish) are more likely to place all modifiers before the head noun. Other languages, such as French, often place even single-word adjectives after the noun.

Furthermore, when you have more than one adjective in a noun phrase, those adjectives must be arranged in a particular order, an order that will not be obvious to non-native speakers from languages very different from English. (Remember the end of the previous sentence: I’ll return to it.)

In the larger scope of things than just premodifiers of head nouns, English is more of a right-branching (head-initial) language than it is a left-branching (head-final) one. I’m not talking just about noun phrases now but the sentence structure itself. The direct object falls to the right of its verb, for example, and prepositional phrases that modify nouns must come after that noun.

That’s why you have a hole in the wall, not an in-the-wall hole. You also do not normally “a hole in the wall have”, either, because putting the object before the verb in English is to draw special attention to it. It is not unheard of, but unlike in today’s Dutch or German, in today’s English this practice is rare enough that it can surprise some readers. Putting the object first doth many an archaic(‑sounding) sentence make, and all that jazz. :)

Prepositions on the left?

The only prepositional phrases that modify a head noun but come before it instead of after it are when they are involved in predeterminers such as both of, some of, many of, lots of, a lot of, a number of, a handful of, half of, half a dozen of, and all the rest like those. That’s why we say:

A lot of these problems are easily avoided.

There “a lot of” is something of a decoy, because the of there looks like the start of a prepositional phrase branching right from lot. These quantifying predeterminers are in the position before the determiner slot in a noun phrase; they do not change what the actual head noun is. It’s still a quantifier whether it’s many or whether it’s a lot of. The lot in the quantifier is not the head. Instead, the actual head noun is still problems in the example give above. If the head noun were lot, it would have to be lot is avoided; but it isn’t. It’s still problems, which is why you still have a plural verb there.

This sort of construction with its decoy of can be confusing to non-native speakers — and sometimes even to native ones who think about it too hard. :) Since they are left-branching and not right-branching, they work like adjectives and not like normal right-branching prepositional phrases. I like to think of this sort of quantifier as a “partitive determiner”, but as far as I know, I’m the only one who does that.

“Heavier elements to the right”

But those sorts of prepositional premodifiers are the exception. Normally prepositional phrases are postmodifiers to the noun phrase. So while postpositive adjectives are the exception, with phrases postpositive positioning is the rule not the exception.

In the same way that prepositional phrases that modify a noun must ordinarily follow it, so too must any verbal phrases that modify it also come after their head noun. This includes participial phrases like “people running for president”, infinitive phrases like “problems to avoid”, and dependent clauses like “screams which are seldom heard in these parts”. Those are all right-branching and head-initial structures.

So earlier when I said “languages very different from English”, I was intentionally using a right-branching structure to modify languages. That’s really a reduced clause under something called whiz-deletion. The wh- word plus the inflected form of the verb be like are or is are both deleted (hence the term whiz-deletion), leaving just an apparently postmodifying adjective behind. But it is actually a clause, and clauses have to come afterwards. The real structure is

languages [which are] very different from English

So phrases that modify a head noun must follow it in English, including these sometimes-disguised clauses like the one I just showed you.

A few more odds and ends

With verbs, it is not always that way, in that an adverbial prepositional phrase can precede the verb. Sometimes this triggers subject–verb inversion, like here:

In the cupboard stand four jars of jam just waiting to be eaten.

You mention the Latinate languages like French being different from English in this. For the most part, you are correct. However, Romance languages normally put determiners to the left just like English, even though their adjectives usually go on the right.

There is an exception to this Romance tendency to use postmodifying adjectives, though. Certain very common ones like big, little, new, young, old, good normally go to the left in Romance, being descriptive not restrictive. The restrictive adjectives go to the right.

And even in Romance they can use those common adjectives as postmodifiers to make them restrictive instead. They do this when they want to draw attention to the common adjective, the way we in English use stress in our voice to distinguish our pretty wife from our pretty wife. In Romance, you would flip the “pretty” part to effect the same thing. So Spanish mi bonita esposa is my pretty wife but mi esposa bonita is my pretty wife. See the difference?

But you’re mostly right: normally Romance wants its adjectives to come after the nouns they modify, which is just the opposite of how English usually arranges them.

Germanic languages (mostly) like to put their adjectives first, while Romance languages (mostly) like to put theirs afterwards. So the Germanic order gives us general counsels while the Romance one produces attorneys general. But postmodifying adjectives (not phrases, just adjectives), are comparatively rare in English, with well-known exceptions like galore, extraordinaire, and the occasional proper occurring postpositively.

  • Could you please explain a little more about the difference between or the system that lies under "A (that is) based on B" and "B-based A". I couldn't read in your writing about this part. Otherwise I really like it and is very informative. – xiver77 Oct 19 '14 at 6:20
  • @xiver77 Because it is a clause, your “A (that is) based on B” needs to have the modifier fall to the right of the head noun A. With “a B-based A”, you now just have a regular adjective, B-based, and adjectives fall to the left of their head noun. That’s the big difference: all actual adjectives (and articles and determiners and numbers) normally come first, while the various sorts of phrases and clauses normally come after. Our adjectives are head-final like in your language, but our phrases are head-initial instead. Does that make sense? Adjectives to the left but phrases to the right. – tchrist Oct 19 '14 at 6:26
  • Yes I certainly do understand your main point about the difference between adjectives and phrases. But in my example, a relative clause has been transformed into a participle bringing its object to its front. I found such very interesting. – xiver77 Oct 19 '14 at 6:32
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    @Kris The question is strictly off-topic, but after tchrist's excellent answer, surely it would be against the spirit of the site to close-vote in this particular case. 'Too broad' is a safeguard, not a whip. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '14 at 7:55
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Whilst I'm not in disagreement, that's fine if its implemented consistently or as an policy - which is maybe something we should do ... – Araucaria Oct 19 '14 at 15:32

There are a lot of different constructs in this question. However, in general terms adjectives always precede the verb. There are exceptions, "letters patent" or "court martial" for example, but they are rare and usually fairly specialized.

The genitive construction is a little different. There are two genitive constructs in English, the first, often called the Saxon genitive uses an apostrophe 's' the second the connecting word "of".

So "The government of California" and "California's government" mean the same thing, just using the two different forms. The genitive represents a fairly wide range of relationships between two nouns, and both forms can't represent all these meanings. For example, "fear of spiders" can mean either the fear that one might have of spiders, or the things that spiders fear. However "spiders' fear" always means the latter.

Genitives always restrict a noun regardless of which type you use. In the case of the Saxon genitive it always goes before the noun (with the 's modifier) and in the "of" genitive it goes after the noun.

You also mentioned another construct, the attributive noun. This is in many respects similar to a genitive, but does not have the same morphological marker "'s". For example "science department" has the same meaning as "department of science". The order here is fixed. The modifying noun goes first, it is a department, specifically one about science. So for example a "car race" is a completely different thing than a "race car".

One final point that someone briefly commented on, but does deserve a fuller explanation. A burning book is not at all the same as a book burning. In fact the two words spelled "burning" mean entirely different things.

In "burning book" burning is a participle, that is to say a verbal adjective. It is correctly placed before (as with nearly all adjectives), and it indicates a book that is aflame. Functionally it is no different than an "aflame book", here aflame is a strict adjective, burning is a verb made to function like an adjective by making it a present participle.

A book burning is entirely different. Here "burning" is a gerund, that is to say a verbal noun. Book here is being used as an attributive noun applied to the noun "burning." A burning is an occasion when things are set aflame. And the attributive noun tells us what is set aflame, specifically books. (One could also, for example, have a furniture burning, or a marshmallow burning.)

So a burning book is a book that is on fire, a book burning is an occasion when for the purpose of setting books on fire. Neither are particularly likeable events. I'd much rather have a furniture burning than either of these to events.

  • So you mean that "a book burning" is different with "a book, burning"? – xiver77 Oct 19 '14 at 6:07
  • Perhaps the OP is confused by “books burning in the street” versus “book burnings in the street”. – tchrist Oct 19 '14 at 6:56
  • Yes xiver77 the comma completely changes the meaning. And @tchrist, you could point out that: "I see a book burning in the street." is entirely ambiguous. – Fraser Orr Oct 19 '14 at 13:42

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