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As a non-native speaker, I think those two above mentioned has no difference. If any, would any of you tell me the subtle difference? As far as I am concerned, past participles should be put before nouns except for past participle phrases modifying nouns.

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  • in the first option, discussed could be acting as either a verb or an adjective. In the second, discussed can only be an adjective. That's the only difference.
    – user180089
    Jul 17, 2016 at 6:17
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    The past participle here is actually a reduced relative clause -- topics [that were] discussed. So probably the more natural construct is after the noun. The more adjectival the participle, the more natural the position before the noun. Forgotten probably works both ways.
    – deadrat
    Jul 17, 2016 at 6:19
  • @deadrat Nice pithy overview. I was thinking that the attributive usage of 'discussed' is perhaps marginal, but on checking, found 'However, the presiding judge did not avoid dealing with the discussed topics', where the postnominal variant sounds a little garden-pathy. 'However, the presiding judge dealing with the topics discussed ...' would be more so. Jul 17, 2016 at 9:09
  • @V0ight I've not found a single example I'd label as a purely verbal or purely adjectival usage. Some are nearer one end, certainly, but I think a gradience analysis fits better. Jul 17, 2016 at 9:34
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    I'd not even considered the personification possibility. I'm sure OP hasn't either; I'm talking about the difference between say 'The topics discussed by the panel that day ...' (pretty verby) and 'The topics discussed seemed far more trivial than the ones on John's list) (more adjectivy). Participles-or-whatever often show in-between characteristics (leading to arguments about classification). Jul 17, 2016 at 16:40

2 Answers 2

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The difference between "discussed topics" and "topics discussed" depends on how the two words are positioned in the overall text.

English is a spoken language. Rhythm and emphasis have meaning. However, sometimes this is hard to represent in written form, especially for non-native speakers, who may not "hear the words in their heads" as the writer originally imagined them.

English is very flexible in its word placement, and this makes it possible for the writer with a sense of rhythm to place the most important word at a point in the sentence where the emphasis would be natural.

For example, imagine someone attending a meeting on global warming, and describing the experience to a friend:

  • Well, the discussed topics were all about agriculture. No one seemed to care about the fishery at all. Our group couldn't even get on the agenda. versus,

  • Well, the topics discussed were pretty technical, but all the parties had tables in the hallways, and there were always people standing around them.

In the first case, the sense is that there were some topics discussed and some topics not discussed. The speaker wants to emphasize this before moving on to the next thought.

In the second case, the sense is that the topics had some common property, but that their discussion is less important.

There is no written grammatical rule to guide you on this, in part because the violation of conventional phrasing is often used to create a more memorable phrase.

To improve your ear, you could try Vital Speeches of the Day. It takes a little work to find the best examples, but in each case you are looking at words that were meant to be spoken aloud, written by people with a good sense of the language. The printed speeches are speeches printed, if you get my drift.

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If the difference is treated as a grammar or syntax problem rather than a semantic problem, you will have different solutions. If the phrase was "the articles discussed" versus "the discussed articles" we might have a semantic problem given that we might we concerned about what the articles discussed versus what articles were discussed. With "topics" we do not appear to have that same type of semantic problem.

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