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Over on ELL I was a bit surprised by a (competent) native speaker of American English saying Books hard to find can be expensive is to my AmE ear no less idiomatic than Hard-to-find books can be expensive (to my BrE ear, the former sounds very poetic/stylised).

I know there are contexts like The meteorites contain organic compounds vital to life, where ...vital-to-life organic compounds would be extremely unlikely, but I've no idea why that example doesn't reflect my preference for, say, Well-written books are a joy to read over Books well-written are a joy to read (where the latter sound to me like a "stylised dictum", rather than "natural colloquial English".

Per the question title, what I want to know is whether there really is a significant US/UK distinction about whether to position what I'm calling "adjectival phrases"1 before or after the relevant noun - or is this just a matter of two individuals having different opinions?


1 I'd also like to know what I should really call them, and I'd really like to know if there's some simple reason why my vital to life example doesn't match the others (to my ear, at least! :)

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  • I think it is just the (maybe BrE) preference to have an adjective (or something behaving adjectivally) preceding the noun rather than succeeding it.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 16, 2018 at 20:58
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    Books hard to find sounds very non-idiomatic to me, and I'm a native speaker of American English. No problems with the pattern: a novel too difficult to understand, a bridge too far.
    – KarlG
    Jan 16, 2018 at 21:06
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    'Molecules impossible to synthesise have been postulated' sounds fine to my 'BrE' ears. As does the padded 'Books hard to find in the major bookshops can be expensive.' But the unpadded example certainly sounds unidiomatic to me. Jan 16, 2018 at 21:59
  • I suspect the locative padding rescues the rest. To me, books hard to find can only work in a sort of speculative or conditional way. We'll see how hard they are to find, and price them accordingly. It doesn't work if it is understood that they are hard-to-find books. I unpack it as books, if hard to find, can get expensive.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 17, 2018 at 2:58

2 Answers 2

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Given that this is responding to your footnote, rather than your main question, perhaps it should be a comment, but:

It seems to me that there's an elliptical "that are", making "hard to find" a relative clause.

As for the difference between "hard to find" and "vital to life":

In "vital to life", "to" is a preposition. The prepositional phrase "to life" modifies the adjective "vital", which in turn modifies "compounds". The compounds are vital. What are they vital to? They are vital to life.

In "hard to find", "to find" is an infinitive; "to" is a particle attached to "find". "Hard" modifies this infinitive. "Hard" doesn't modify "books", it modifies "to find", and then that whole phrase "hard to find" modifies "books". Try applying the last three sentences of the previous paragraph here. "The books are hard. What are they hard to? They are hard to find." That really doesn't work.

Some adjectives can take prepositional phrases; they modify one phrase, but take another phrase as an object. When that happens, the adjective is often moved after the phrase that it modifies so that it can be next to both the phrase that it modifies and its object:

"tools useful in mining" rather than "useful tools in mining"

"toys interesting to babies" rather than "interesting toys to babies"

"jokes inappropriate for work" rather than "inappropriate jokes for work"

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  • Interesting. Up-voted.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 16, 2018 at 20:56
  • Reduced relative clauses have been covered here many times; 'whiz-deletion' remains a contentious analysis. Jan 16, 2018 at 21:50
  • 'The meteorites contain organic compounds impossible to synthesise' / 'Molecules impossible to synthesise have been postulated' use the infinitive-marker rather than the preposition in an adjective complement. Jan 16, 2018 at 21:54
  • Armed with your relative clause and @Edwin's reduced, I googled Reduced relative clauses "which is", for which I got A reduced relative clause is a relative clause that is not marked by an explicit relative pronoun or complementizer such as who, which or that. That works for me. Jan 18, 2018 at 15:31
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I gave two other examples in that ELL thread:

An idea slow to catch on is often a good one.

Tastes hard to achieve are what these new wave chefs are seeking.

and I also mentioned, in a comment about the following example

Books hard to find can be expensive.

that this construction typically involves "a prior mention". The statement in which the construction appears is keying off of one immediately before it. For example:

This morning I went to the used bookshop down in Old City.
— Nice shop. Lots of out-of-print editions on the shelves there.
They wanted $125 for a hardback copy of The Rain Puddle, and it wasn't even a first edition.
— Books hard to find can be expensive.

The post-placement of hard to find makes it more salient. An important fact is moved to a more visible place.

Such constructions can appear in sentences which are second-cousins to aphorisms, but they needn't be limited to that register, as the example with the new-wave chefs shows.

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