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I want to better understand why the construction something + [adjective] makes grammatical sense.

Background: I was recently reading a Washington Post article and came across the following sentence.

So if you fall in that category, [the movie] feels more like magic than repetitive.

(Note: I've copied the relevant spoiler-free sentence above; following the link to the article will open you up to movie spoilers! Source)

The phrase more like magic than repetitive struck me as odd, presumably because it was non-parallel (more like [noun] than [adjective]). I would have expected "...more like magic than something repetitive." (Actually, that needs to be rewritten to flow better, but the point is that at least it appears to be grammatical.) Thus, one would have the noun phrase "something repetitive," of the form "[noun] [adjective]."

This got me to thinking about the use of adjectives after nouns. There is a great Stack Exchange article here (When can an adjective be postponed) that involves the characteristics of the adjective that indicate it should come after the noun. But I haven't been able to find examples of how the word "something" requires a postponed adjective.

Consider the following sentences:

I want to buy something red.

I am looking for something sweet to eat.

You cannot say:

*I want to buy red something.

*I am looking for sweet something to eat.

But you can say:

I want to buy something (that is) red.

I am looking for something (that is) sweet to eat.

So, my question:

  1. Do the above examples mean that the "something [adjective]" construction is an example of the ellipsis of "that is"?

  2. Is there something special about the word "something" that requires the postponed adjective? Note that I am NOT looking for details about adjectives that are postponed; I'm interested in the word that precedes the adjective (either "something" or similar words).

By the way, I am not interested in the following constructions, which are different:

I want to paint the house red.

I tried to build the brick house taller.

Thanks in advance!

  • I think it's because I want to buy something red = I want to buy some red thing. But since some is a determiner (as a, the, that), we know for sure we can't stick the adjective before it. I want to buy red the thing definitely doesn't cut it. – FumbleFingers Dec 23 '15 at 19:01
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“Something” is a compound determinative. There is a constraint on the position of certain modifiers called 'restrictors' that can be used to modify such compounds. The restrictors (adjectives or certain nominals) cannot occur in pre-head position because of the fused nature of the construction and are forced into post-head position, with only "else" allowed between them and the head:

“Nothing (else) significant”; "everything gold", "somewhere beautiful”, "nowhere special", "somebody rich".

  • This is a great answer and exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for. Do you have a source regarding compound determinatives? I see a few entries for determinative compounds ("A type of compound in which part of it gives information that pertains to the compound's head, but not by acting as a modifier"), but the examples given (footstool, armchair) don't appear to be the same class of word. Can you point me in the direction where I can do more research? Thanks! – Nonnal Dec 23 '15 at 21:17
  • Nonnal Do you by any chance have access to The Cambridge Grammar of The English Language (CGEL) by Huddleston & Pullum? – BillJ Dec 23 '15 at 21:41
  • Ah, if only I did! But sadly, no. If you have extra copies or $250 to spare, though, I'll send you my mailing address. ;-) And owe you a cup of coffee. – Nonnal Dec 23 '15 at 21:44
  • @Nonnal I can certainly email you the relevant pages, if you like. Assuming it's not breaking any ELU rules, of course. – BillJ Dec 23 '15 at 21:47
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    @Araucaria Done! – BillJ Dec 31 '15 at 11:34
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It's both ellipsis (via Whiz-Deletion), and adjective positioning.

Something is a compound of the indefinite quantifier some and the generic neuter noun thing.

Quantifiers are determiners, and determiners precede adjectives, and adjectives precede nouns.
So any adjective like red would have to appear between some and thing; i.e, some red thing.

But something is glued together, so red has to go after it; i.e, something red.

This is exactly right for a reduced relative clause construction, i.e, something (that is) red.

What all this means is that using an adjective after a noun is not just a matter of adjectives

-- except a few, like galore, which must follow any noun and can't be a predicate adjective --

  • There were costumes galore at the ball.
  • *There were galore costumes at the ball.
  • *The (number of) costumes at the ball was/were galore.

but rather a matter of the constructions involved.

If an adjective can be interpreted as a predicate in a reduced relative clause, it can go after a noun.
Contrariwise, using an adjective after a noun marks it as a predicate in a reduced relative clause.

  • This is a great answer and well stated. Thank you! – Nonnal Dec 24 '15 at 20:28

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