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I wonder why "A Nation Divided" is in this headline instead of "A Divided Nation". To me, from how I am taught, isn't an adjective supposed to go before the noun? I am not a native speaker.


7 Answers 7


It's an allusion to a very famous speech by Abraham Lincoln, which included the line:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.

As you see, in Lincoln's speech divided is accompanied by a following complement, against itself. A modifier which itself has a following modifier or complement cannot be placed in front of the head noun, but must be placed after it.

  • 32
    Lincoln's speech was itself an allusion to a Bible verse, and the use of phrases containing the words "a nation divided" existed prior to the Gettysburg address (1863): see books.google.com/…, books.google.com/…
    – herisson
    Apr 30, 2017 at 2:14
  • 15
    @sumelic true, but this is still a good answer because CBS morning news wouldn't be using that phrase if it weren't for Lincoln Apr 30, 2017 at 4:05
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    @RaceYouAnytime Evidence for that assertion? You may as well say that Lincoln wouldn't have used it if it hadn't been for the Bible. It doesn't really mean anything.
    – user207421
    Apr 30, 2017 at 5:00
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    @EJP I don't have direct evidence of why CBS really does anything, but the phrase "a house divided against itself" is well-known or at least has been heard by most people who grew up in the U.S. in an American history context. They would be less likely to have read it in the Bible. Then a news station uses the structure in a piece about division in U.S. politics, with direct reference to the presidency. Keep in mind the producers or copywriters who would have written that would be much more interested in American history than Biblical trivia. Apr 30, 2017 at 5:07
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    For reference, it's in Matthew 12:25: "And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:" And Mark 3:25: "And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand." (KJV translation.) Interestingly, in context, the "house" in question is Satan's house. May 1, 2017 at 0:58

The adjective preceding the noun is a general rule of English; however, it is not the only location. It is possible to emphasize (some) adjectives by placing the after the noun. Example: "A tiger, large and menacing, crept through the jungle." The alternate sentence, "A large and menacing tiger crept through the jungle," doesn't emphasize the qualities of being large or menacing.

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    But there is more about this. Neither A tiger large crept through the jungle nor A tiger menacing crept through the jungle would be acceptable, yet a nation divided is. I suspect that your sentence is rather an example of a parenthetic expression than a post-posed adjective.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 30, 2017 at 18:02
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    If I were to write the above 'unacceptable' examples as poetry, it would be fine because the enjambment is cool and, well, poetic license rules: "A tiger large / crept through / the jungle green."
    – IconDaemon
    May 1, 2017 at 14:28
  • The poetry example is good, but it requires that both "tiger large" and "jungle green." The reverse "large tiger" and "green jungle" is possible but merely descriptive rather than evocative. A "tiger larger" would not match well with "green jungle" (but not wrong, just not very stylish) as would the "large tiger" and "jungle green" also.
    – ttw
    May 1, 2017 at 16:17
  • If StoneyB is right about the inspiration being Lincoln's "A house divided against itself cannot stand" quote, then divided isn't a regular adjective, but rather the start of an adjectival phrase (or possibly an gerund phrase, depending on exactly how it's read). "A house (that is) divided against itself cannot stand." And in that case, we need neither commas nor parentheses, as we do in "a tiger, large and menacing". In "A Nation Divided", the rest of the phrase is dropped, but the order (necessary in the original, odd here) remains.
    – Ray
    May 2, 2017 at 1:45

Those two headlines give me different expectations for what the content will be about.

A Nation Divided I expect to tell me about the process leading to the division, but not necessarily what the end result will look like.

A Divided Nation I expect to tell me about the state of this divided nation, but not necessarily how it got there.

It is of course possible that the content will cover both the process and the end result, since they are obviously related, in which case I would find either headline to be suitable.


There are some adjectives that follow the noun in English. But in this case, haven't we just got a hidden relative clause. "A nation [that is] divided." Similarly with Lincoln "A house [that is] divided against itself cannot stand."

  • 1
    I don't know that it is so much ellipsis as it is emphasis. I could be wrong, however.
    – Dog Lover
    Apr 30, 2017 at 23:12
  • I feel like that just moves the location of the issue: if this is the proper analysis, why is it that "a nation that is divided" is commonly simplified to "a nation divided" but e.g. "a nation that is diverse" is not commonly simplified to "a nation diverse"?
    – herisson
    May 1, 2017 at 2:39
  • This is really the best answer. Other answers may approach things from a more academic direction, but this does a better job of actually explaining it in a clear and practical way. May 1, 2017 at 14:15

Since 'Divided' can either be a verb in past participle form (as used in passive clauses) or an adjective (quote from @bdsl - thanks for clarifying the distinction for me in the comments below), my impression is that "A Nation Divided", with the emphasis on the "Divided", might be referring to the verb form - the action of having been divided - more of an emphasis on the action and less on the object of the division - and with connotations of a temporary state or divided with regards to a certain issue or a division that has happened recently, whereas "A Divided Nation" sounds like the adjective form and would seem to be projecting the idea of some kind of permanence, irreconcilability or essence.

  • When you say 'active' and 'passive', it seams like you mean 'verb' and 'adjective'. 'Divided' can either be a verb in past participle form (as used in passive clauses) or an adjective.
    – bdsl
    May 1, 2017 at 9:55
  • You are correct. I need to edit my answer.
    – nzn
    May 1, 2017 at 10:11

I am no expert on English, but here are my (informal) thoughts:

It is typical of the media or the news agencies to twist sentences to get catchy titles.

  • A Divided Nation: The whole thing put together is a phrase that behaves like a Noun. The emphasis is on the nation, and the word divided is a qualifier for the same.
  • A Nation Divided: The whole thing put together is sort of a sentence by itself. There is a object and a verb. And the emphasis is on the division that happened.

If you want a news article, then the second thing makes more sense. You are willing to report an event, not describe the nation.

  • Isn't Nation in the second sentence an object rather than a subject? It seems to me like a passive clause, which could have 'by' added to it, e.g. 'A Nation Divided by some serious disagremeents'.
    – bdsl
    May 1, 2017 at 9:53
  • @bdsl okay agreed. I edited my answer May 2, 2017 at 1:24

I think the answer is that "A Nation Divided" uses the past participle form of the verb "to divide," implying an actor or force that is responsible for the division (e.g. "A Nation Divided by Ideology"). This grammar form is somewhat archaic, and can certainly be found in the King James Bible as well as Shakespeare ("A house divided"). Converting "Divided" to an adjective placed in front of "Nation" reduces the amount and type of information the headline conveys.

This is also a great example that news headlines aren't really governed by the same grammatical rules as is typical written English.

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