Right now I can only think of one instance in which this regularly occurs. The adjective proper is sometimes placed after the noun it modifies, e.g:

Reptilia: A class of cold-blooded oviparous or ovoviviparous vertebrated animals whose skin is covered with scales or scutes; the reptiles proper.

What is this word order called, and why is it ever used?

Edit: I really want to know about proper, and while the word hyperbaton relates to post-positivity when it is meant to be rhetorically impacting, it doesn't seem to fit with ubiquitous post-positivity, such as that of proper. I've accepted hyperbaton as the correct term/reason for almost all post-positive constructions, but I'd like a complete answer to include proper.


5 Answers 5


These are called post-positive adjectives:

A postpositive adjective is an adjective that appears after the noun that it modifies. In some languages this is the normal syntax, but in English it is rare, largely confined to archaic or institutional expressions. Aplenty, galore, and the informal extraordinaire are examples of adjectives that are primarily used postpositively in modern English. Name suffixes, such as Junior and Senior, also function as postpositive adjectives modifying proper names.

Why do they follow these nouns? Sometimes it is imperative for them to follow the nouns they modify. For example, in your example, there's a difference between "proper reptiles" and "reptiles proper". Taking a look at another example:

Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs)

That's why they are sometimes used after the nouns proper.

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    +1 just for the name, but the rest isn't quite satisfying. Just because proper has a different meaning when it follows the noun doesn't make it obvious why the word order was invented in the first place.
    – Daniel
    Commented Sep 18, 2011 at 22:06
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    Here is some speculation about where "X proper" might have come from. From this heraldry website: ProperUsed in blazon to specify that a charge appears in its natural colors. "A zebra proper" has the zebra’s characteristic pattern of black and white stripes. "A tree proper" has a brown trunk and green leaves. Going from the heraldic meaning to the current meaning after a noun seems a relatively natural metaphor. Commented Sep 18, 2011 at 23:58
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    And looking at the list of post-positive adjectives in the link, I suspect a large number of them were taken from French, where many more adjectives can appear after the noun. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 0:01
  • @PeterShor Interesting about the heraldry. You're almost certainly right, given that 'proper' in French ('propre') means 'own' ie the zebra's own colours.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 0:12
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    @Jascol: I would assume that meaning A-I-7c started being used as a post-modifier because of its similarity to the heraldic meaning. The early citations in the OED for this meaning are pre-modifiers, and you only see post-modifiers long after the heraldic usage was established. Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 22:12

This is called hyperbaton, which means to use out of the normal order to emphasis or to modify the meaning of the noun preceding the adjective. Another example is the movie title Mission Impossible. The writing guide Bang: Writing with Impact explains it this way:

Any time you place words out of their normal order, you create impact. You force the reader to pay attention to them, reflect on them, and remember them. In this strategy, you immediately follow the name of a thing with an adjective or descriptive phrase. In this way, the description becomes part of the name of the thing; they are inseparable. When your reader thinks of the thing, he or she will also think of the description because the description becomes part of the name.

Your reader will notice this immediately, which means this strategy can be used to emphasize a key characteristic. However, because this change in word order is so obvious and so prone to sounding contrived, it must be used carefully and infrequently. In the right place, it can be a highly effective technique for emphasizing a point. Use it at the end of a sentence for greatest impact.

“This is a plan impossible.”

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    This doesn't explain proper, but it explains just about everything else!
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 22:06
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    In "reptiles proper," the word-order isn't for emphasis or to modify the meaning of "reptiles" (except in the sense that any adjective modifies the meaning of its noun).
    – user16723
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 3:47
  • Sadly, this is nonsense. “This is a plan impossible” is what Hercules Poirot would say, it's not English grammar. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 3:05

The Art of Thinking (1662), or Port Royal Logic gives the example the stars visible where the adjective gives a accidental attribute, as compared with the visible stars, giving an essential attribute.


I've been searching on the Web for the large-ish group of what I've seen called "a-adjectives" that cannot normally precede nouns they modify in English. Examples are adrift, awry, athwart, afraid. There are at least 40 of them. Most of them are NOT derived from French or any non-English language; they come originally from Anglo-Saxon, I believe.

As best I can tell, to use these adjectives before nouns, you have to cange them: a driting boat, a fearful person.

I saw a list a year or so ago, I think on Wikipedia, but I can't find it again.

  • Anglo-Saxon is not a language. Perhaps you mean Old English.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 6:55

One effect of placing an adjective after the noun it modifies is that the adjective must be interpreted as a restrictive modifier. In "plan impossible", for example, an intended meaning is that some plans are impossible but others aren't. When placed before the noun, depending on the context, the adjective could be mistaken as non-restrictive.

Incidentally this practice coincides with those of romance languages.

  • I think you have the non-restrictive placement backwards.
    – AmI
    Commented Sep 15, 2018 at 8:12

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