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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. Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 1:02
  • it's just an adjective. consider the ESL site which is great for questions like this.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 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. Commented Aug 17, 2015 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
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 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
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 21:31

4 Answers 4

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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?

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  • "He is a man happy to see you" is possible.
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 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
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 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
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 1:19
  • @sooeithdk It's fine to say it in poetry. It's still going to be awkward in conversation.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 3:30
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A Google NGrams comparison thing_INF nice to,nice thing_INF to shows that, at the scale Google chooses, the usage of the forms "thing* nice to" is so rare that it doesn't show on the graph.

Compare instead question_INF hard to,hard question_INF to. Now Google NGrams shows that, though the forms "hard question* to" are used more often, the usage of the forms "question* hard to" at least shows up on the graph.

Perhaps one factor making "thing nice to..." so rare is that the noun "thing" carries very little semantic weight.

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  • 'A thing wonderful to behold' has quite a few tokens in a Google search, but it's poetic/literary. 'A wonderful thing to behold' (which can, similarly, only sensibly be expounded as 'a thing which when seen inspires wonder') is a lot more idiomatic. Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 17:43
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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.

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    No, I don't see a difference like this. Can you elaborate on this, or provide a source that establishes this?
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 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
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 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.
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 7:10
  • @sumelic, I'm not a native English speaker. That's just how I understand it.
    – dlz
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 11:24
  • 'that is a thing nice to do' sounds ungrammatical. Do you mean 'that thing is nice to do'? Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 9:06

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