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People often say, "that is a nice thing to do!" But when I thought this question over, this thought occurred to me: Why don't we say " That is a thing nice to do"?

My reason is as follows. We often say "boys reading under trees," not "reading boys under trees." Not that the second one is flawed or anything, but it is just the way it is. Then my question is, why don't we say "thing nice to do"?

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    Well, sometimes we do. The plural of Attorney General is Attorneys General. That's because the Attorney General isn't a General but an Attorney. General is the descriptive word. Most of the time the descriptive word comes first and so that is what is expected. But this expectation is not enshrined in grammar. Grammar only takes you so far. You will find it in idioms. – candied_orange Aug 17 '15 at 1:02
  • it's just an adjective. consider the ESL site which is great for questions like this. – Fattie Aug 17 '15 at 1:10
  • your example for the "reasoning " is not really apt, but the question is excellent. There should be a way to distinguish between a "nice thing" and a thing which is "nice to do". But it seems we muddle them together. – Brian Hitchcock Aug 17 '15 at 5:32
  • @JoeBlow: You may confuse people by calling English Language Learners ESL. It is commonly referred to as ELL, just as in the URL to that site ;-) – oerkelens Aug 20 '15 at 9:57
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    Q: "Is this a thing that is nice to do or nice to say?" A: "It is a thing nice to say." – fixer1234 Mar 4 '17 at 21:31
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Because "thing" is a (pro)noun and "nice" is an adjective that modifies the noun: Postpositive adjectives are rare in English and their use is generally formulaic; "thing" and "nice" don't meet the criteria.

As for your second paragraph: this is a different situation. "Reading" in the first sentence is a verb - the boys are doing reading; in the second sentence "reading" is an adjective - "reading" is a feature of the boys. If instead we considered it a verb the sentence (as a sentence) would be incomplete - who is reading the boys under the trees?

  • "He is a man happy to see you" is possible. – sooeithdk Aug 17 '15 at 1:10
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    @sooeithdk ...as a contracted form of "He is a man who is happy to..." which doesn't apply in OP's case. You could theoretically say it as a contraction of ...that is... but the phrasing is so awkward that it's not actually a common way of expressing the idea. – lly Jun 18 '17 at 3:28
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I may be looking at this too simplistically, but it's the same reason we don't say, "she put on her dress red." Nice is an adjective modifying a noun and an adjective comes in front of the noun.

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    It is fine to say the sentence above according to rule of whiz-deletion. This is actually a sentence with many ellipsis. The original version is this: That is a thing which is nice to do, with "which is" deleted. See this-wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=24650 – sooeithdk Aug 17 '15 at 1:19
  • @sooeithdk It's fine to say it in poetry. It's still going to be awkward in conversation. – lly Jun 18 '17 at 3:30
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+50

Aren't they different? "that is a nice thing to do!"-> the thing is nice. "that is a thing nice to do" -> doing the thing is nice.

  • No, I don't see a difference like this. Can you elaborate on this, or provide a source that establishes this? – sumelic Jun 20 '17 at 22:51
  • For example, "it's nice to meet you", means "meeting you is a nice thing to me"; "it's a nice you to meet", just means "you are nice, and I meet you". Does this make sense? – dlz Jun 21 '17 at 6:06
  • I see. So you mean "a thing nice to do" can be interpreted as "a thing that it is nice to do" rather than "a thing that is nice to do"? Hmm. I'll need to think about that for a bit. – sumelic Jun 21 '17 at 7:10
  • @sumelic, I'm not a native English speaker. That's just how I understand it. – dlz Jun 21 '17 at 11:24
  • 'that is a thing nice to do' sounds ungrammatical. Do you mean 'that thing is nice to do'? – marcellothearcane Jul 1 '17 at 9:06

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