Recently as some of us were getting ready to take a walk through the snow, somebody said to me "you're wearing sensible shoes". Now my shoes haven't developed cognitive abilities so far as I know (and I spend enough time with them that I think I would notice), but everyone there knew what this means. It's a common phrase in my experience, but it got me wondering. The adjective sensible here, while syntactically bound to the noun shoes, really applies to another noun in the sentence instead. Is there a term for this sort of modifier migration, or is this sentence technically ungrammatical?

I checked dictionary.com for alternate or obscure meanings of sensible but found none, and a Google search on the phrase turned up uses but no explanations. I also don't think this construct is limited to this particular phrase, but I don't have any more clever ideas.

  • What do you mean when you say "The adjective sensible here, while syntactically bound to the noun shoes, really applies to another noun in the sentence instead"? What is the other noun? – Irene Feb 12 '12 at 20:34
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    @Irene, the other noun is "you" -- the speaker is saying that I was sensible for choosing those shoes, not that my shoes of their own volition made some sensible decision. – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '12 at 20:40
  • No, I don't think that applies. I agree with @Jasper Loy's answer. I saw his link, it gives a sound explanation of a further meaning of the word sensible (which, curiously enough, isn't included in other dictionaries I've checked). – Irene Feb 12 '12 at 20:42
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    A parallel that occurs to me is this sentence. "Bacon is not a very sensible thing to have for breakfast if your cholesterol is high". My bacon is about as cognitive as your shoes. – user16269 Feb 13 '12 at 10:14
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    Clearly the reason we describe your shoes as sensible is that they're able to be sensed. – Nathan Long Feb 13 '12 at 14:35

An adjective modifying the "wrong" word in a sentence is known as a transferred epithet. This can be used for poetic or humourous effect, or, as in this case, the epithet may have become so strongly associated with the noun that it has no particular literary effect on the listener.

A simple example is "I spent a sleepless night" (it is I who was sleepless, not the night). My English teacher was rather fond of "a schoolboy once again in shivering shorts" from John Betjeman's Original Sin on the Sussex Coast. Of course, the schoolboy is shivering, not his shorts.

Wikipedia has a brief entry on the more general hypallage. I have rarely heard this term used in reference to English grammar or literature.

As noted by other answerers sensible shoes in particular has jumped the chasm from literary device to creating an alternative accepted meaning of sensible. Another example of such a jump is curious, as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

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    Thank you! I see from the other answers here that I chose a poor example, but it is the construct, not "sensible" in particular, that I was asking about. "Sleepless night" is a great example of this. – Monica Cellio Feb 13 '12 at 1:06
  • +1 Hypallage sounds common to me as a term used in classics. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 13 '12 at 2:32
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    +1 Everyone knows why but not everyone can explain it so well. – Kris Feb 13 '12 at 14:10
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    The kind of answers that EL&U must have been conceived for!+1. Refreshing to see something other than the (now) jarring "What is the word/term/phrase for..... – Vaibhav Garg Feb 15 '12 at 4:21

The OALD lists sensible to mean useful rather than fashionable when referring to things like clothes. The CALD also lists sensible to mean practical rather than being attractive.

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  • Thanks; I hadn't seen that definition formalized anywhere before. – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '12 at 20:57
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    My local dictionary offers a similar definition: "sensible - (of an object) practical and functional rather than decorative." – MrHen Feb 12 '12 at 22:00
  • +1 An entirely plausible alternative. And undeniably right. – Kris Feb 13 '12 at 14:11

Of course sensible has a meaning "Characterized more by usefulness or practicality than by fashionableness, especially of clothing". Etymonline says, regarding sensible:

Of clothes, shoes, etc., "practical rather than fashionable" it is attested from 1855.

But note that terms like "sensible walking shoes" were in use already in the 1820's:

...oot wi' such daft-like things in such weather; they're liker dancin' schule pumps than sensible walkin' shoes. (The Inheritance, Susan Ferrier, 1825)

There's a very slight possibility that the term sensible shoes may have some relation to horseshoeing. Beginning in the early 1800's, sensible frequently appears in agricultural publications about horseshoes:

...with common shoes there is no pressure tracts, ... The artificial frog, which is intended to the sensible frog, without any respite, must receive cover... (The Complete Farmer, 1807)
...it has some defects in common with other shoes. It is attached with nails, and these nails may pinch the sensible parts within... (Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, 1831)

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    Surely sensible in your last quotation means sensitive. The word has many meanings, but most aren't relevant here. – Tim Lymington Feb 12 '12 at 21:26

I don't think it's an unusual construction at all: would you think a clever idea had out-thought the originator, or a stupid joke likely to be teased by the other figures of speech? Quite a few adjectives can be applied either to the originator or the result: whether it's "the same meaning" may depend on your definitions.

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    "Clever idea" was an intentional choice in my question. :-) Does this kind of construction have a name? – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '12 at 20:55
  • Oops, didn't see that :( It might be a transferred meaning, but I don't see how you determine which was the original. – Tim Lymington Feb 12 '12 at 21:23

It's not the shoes that are sensible.

Rather, "You have made a sensible choice in electing to wear this particular pair of shoes on this given occasion."

Your interlocutor simply cuts to the chase and states:

"You're wearing sensible shoes."

But the above meaning is implied. Humans are like that. They rely on a high degree of context to communicate meaning.

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  • Right, that's my point -- "sensible" applies to me, not to the shoes, but semantically the shortened sentence is problematic. I'm wondering if there is a language construct/rule that covers this, or if it's a case of "we all know what it means so it's ok". – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '12 at 20:55
  • "We all know what it means" is the basis of all communication. Meaning, we can't productively abstract this or any other utterance from its context. So, I think it a futile endeavor to attempt to reconstruct or interpret meaning independent of context. That, in my opinion, is simple a red herring. – Jack Robbin Feb 12 '12 at 21:02
  • @MonicaCellio: Based on my own dictionary and answers other than this one, the shoes are sensible. They are sensible shoes. Sensible just has an additional meaning when applied to objects. – MrHen Feb 12 '12 at 22:02
  • I don't doubt that sensible could have an additional meaning that applies to objects. However, I think it sensible to assume that in the first instance this meaning is applied to people and then extended to objects that relate to people. That is to say, the object is as sensible as it is in relation to a valuation made by people. – Jack Robbin Feb 13 '12 at 6:01
  • In other words, high-heels at the beach would not be sensible, but flip-flops would. – Jack Robbin Feb 13 '12 at 6:10

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