I have some difficulty understanding the position of adjectives. In English I have to put the adjective before the referred name (e.g., I'm an Italian man).

In some languages (as Italian or Ancient Greek), the adjective (or another grammatical element) can have two positions:

  1. attributive: "gli uomini buoni" (the set of men who are good).
  2. predicative: "i buoni uomini" (the men who are inherently good: all the men are good).

How do you translate?

  1. the good men
  2. ????
  • 4
    It is unclear what the nuances of the Italian phrases are. 'Predcative' makes it sound like 'The men are good' (that is you are dropping the copula 'are' in Italian). Can you elaborate?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 18:36
  • 1
    The short answer is that in English we use vocal stress for what in Italian would be an out-of-normal-position word. See my longer answer below.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 20:05
  • +1 Most questions of true merit come from the non-native speakers.
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 5:18
  • I believe both translate to 'the good men' in English, with the distinction being drawn from the semantics of the context: "those of the men who are good," and "the men, considering that all men are good."
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 5:25
  • @Mitch I think the OP has made his point sufficiently clear, if how I understand it is correct.
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 5:26

4 Answers 4


The terms seem appropriate and may be traditional for Italian grammar, but they're not standard or useful for English. Forget the terms.

In Spanish, there's a similar phenomenon, with occasional modification of form, and usually some of meaning:

  • un hombre grande 'a big man'
  • un gran hombre 'a great man'

The Italian case seems to be a way of ensuring a generic interpretation of the noun phrase; English normally uses articles for this, but English article use is very different from Italian.

If I've understood the distinction correctly, one might use a generic NP in English to translate; i.e,

  • gli uomini buoni ~ the good men (referential NP)
  • i buoni uomini ~ good men (generic NP)

In English, adjectives may have three different positions. But, using any adjective at any position is not possible.

1) Attributive position - before noun. Most adjectives go before noun.

Green tree
Happy girl

2) Predicative position - after verbs.

The tree is green.
The girl is happy.

3.Postpositive - after nouns.

After certain nouns:

Two meters tall
Two kilometers wide

Some fixed expressions:

Court martial
Heir apparent

If there is an superlative adjective modifying noun, adjectives ending in -able / -ible may come after that noun.

worst choice imaginable
the best hotel available

Some adjectives can be used both at "attributive" or "predicative" position. E.g;

Happy girl
The girl is happy.

Some adjectives may have different meaning when used attributively and/or predicatively. E.g;

My friend is poor.
My poor friend

Robin Harris was late.
The late Robin Harris

Some adjectives, such as afraid, alive, alone can only be used at predicative position. E.g;

John is alone.

  • For completeness, there is also the 'absolute adjective' (ambiguation problem' or 'adjective used in absolute construction'. Patterning on 'His energy almost spent, John flopped on the grass': 'Exhausted, John flopped on the grass'. As explained elsewhere, short lone adjectives resist this usage: ??'Sad, John left the room to consider his future.' Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 10:44

This is is the old problem of “May I introduce you to mi bonita esposa or to mi esposa bonita?” Or if you prefer French, to ma jolie femme vs ma femme jolie.

Like Latin, Spanish (and to a lesser extent the other Romance tongues) use flexible word order where in English we use speech stress. You can only rarely use inversion in English for this, such as to good men and true. It doesn’t fit into normal speech as it does in Romance. Sometimes, though, the most important thing you can put at the front of the sentence, like that.

I think in English we would have to introduce someone to your pretty wife or to your pretty wife, setting the emphasized word in italic. That’s a bit bludgeoning, though, so a careful writer will seek a way to do this without resorting to italic wherever possible. It isn’t always possible though, so we go for the italic in print, or to an underline in manuscript.

  • 1
    I have no idea what distinction of meaning is supposed to come from emphasising "pretty". If it were "pretty friend" I could suppose that meant (as opposed to the other one - your ugly friend). But that's out, since you can only have one wife. I'm lost. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 22:07
  • I'm still waiting for someone to fill me in on the difference between ma jolie femme and ma femme jolie. I speak a bit of French, but all I know is the first one sounds "non-standard". Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 23:08
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers As a native speaker, I think that ma femme jolie is wrong. The standard idiom is ma jolie femme.
    – Evpok
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 23:23
  • @Evpok: I'm sure you're right. It's been a long time since I spoke any French, but I do know the adjective usually comes after the noun. I seem to recall being told there are some contexts where this is always or optionally reversed, but I don't remember any details, including whether any particular wordpair would be commonly understood to have two distinct meanings according to the order. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 0:17
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Adjectives that go in front are like our descriptive clauses, which can be omitted at will. Those that come afterwards are like the restrictive clauses that cannot be. The ones in front don’t distinguish which noun it is, they just add more description. This is the same in Italian and Spanish. e.g.: The valiant soliders advanced is “Los valientes soldados avanzaron”(=all advancing soldiers were valiant) OR “Los soldados valientes avanzaron”(=only the valiant ones did any advancing). “The soldiers, who were valiant, advanced” VS “The soldiers who were valiant advanced.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 1:23

I don't think I really need an "authoritative source" on this one, so here's Rob's English Blog:

Usually in English adjectives, or describing words, come before the noun:

  • It was a large amount.
  • He is a responsible citizen.
  • She is an interested volunteer.

In order to put the adjective after the noun, you need to make a clause of some kind:

  • It was an amount that was large.
  • He is a citizen who is responsible.
  • She is a volunteer who is interested.

However, look out for cases in English where the adjective comes after the noun. These are sometimes called participle adjectives. Look at these examples:

  • I wrote to the person concerned.
  • I got a rebate for tax paid.
  • They worked through the night to repair the damage caused.

Notice that the adjective comes after the noun. It does not work before the noun. In these sentences, the relative clause is omitted and the participle becomes an adjective:

As Rob's blog goes on to say, some adjectives can go before or after the noun in certain constructions (note that this doesn't significantly affect the meaning):

  • The stolen jewels were worth $2 million.
  • The jewels stolen were worth $2 million.

...but this doesn't apply in OP's case, where good can only go before the noun. Any difference in meaning will have to be conveyed by using more words.

  • 1
    Right on. This is English Whiz-Deletion at work. However, I think it's different from what he's asking about, which is how to translate the construction from a language where it's used differently. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 18:47
  • @John Lawler: Well you're the linguist, so perhaps you know Italian, and understand the distinction OP wishes to make. I don't, on both counts, so all I can do is tell him that even if he's used to being able to make some subtle distinction in Italian by this word-order switch, it probably doesn't work that way in English. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 19:02
  • I think that's right. I don't know Italian, but when word order variation is available to make a distinction, the distinction can probably be made some way in any language. But probably not the same way. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 19:05
  • @John Lawler: Even after seeing your answer and poring over OP's text, I still have no real clue as to the distinction he wants to make. But it does occur to me that in English, "the errant knights" means something completely different to "the knights errant" (though the latter is often, maybe usually, hyphenated). Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 19:13
  • @FumbleFingers: surely the position change makes a semantic difference in English. But we don't realy have an idea of what the meaning of the position change in Italian is, which may not correspond to a position change in English. I like translation questions, but the OP needs to provide lot more for us to answer reasonably or it not to be 'off topic'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 20:11

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