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I read this at the economist, and it's the 2nd sentence in the 2nd paragraph.

That is small consolation for an Israeli establishment still hankering after the much easier rapport it had with Egypt's ousted Mubarak regime, especially in matters military.

At first I thought "matters" here means "important", because I tend to understand it this way: "especially in military that matters". Then it occurs to me that phrase like "something good" has the "noun + adjective" structure, so I guess "matters military" means "military matters". But it really costs me a lot of time to figure it out, and I would have put it as "military matters" instead. Because my limited language sense tells me I can postpose an adjective (phase) only when it's used with unspecified pronouns such as "anything, everything or something", or when the phrase itself is too long.

So question one: In this case, which one sounds more comfortable to you? matters military or military matters?

Qustion two: When can I postpose an adjective and when is it imperative?

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    I prefer preposited adjectives, but am only mildly annoyed by postposited. You must do it in certain fixed phrases which have been around so long they're no longer generally perceived to be of this construction: court martial, attorney general, sergeant major, lieutenant general, fiddlers three. So far as I know there's nothing to forbid posposition non-determinant adjectives; but except in deliberately archaizing contexts it sounds odd and pretentious. Graves & Hodge mocked its overuse in interwar writing on the arts. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 0:59
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    There are also a few adjectives which are only used postpositively: galore, extraordinaire. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 1:07
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    If you think that’s good, take a gander at the Major-General’s Song, by Gilbert and Sullivan. Like several other verbs that end in -t, cost is invariant in the past tense: “Today it costs me, yesterday it cost me, it has always cost me.” Other common verbs that work this way include shut, put, and cast.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 1:19
  • Here’s a longer list: beat, bet, bid, cast, cost, cut, hit, hurt, knit, let, put, quit, set, shed, shut, sit , slit, split, spread, and wet.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 1:57
  • @tchrist: Thanks for pointing that out! I always forget the past tense form of cost...
    – zwangxian
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 2:30

2 Answers 2

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Question 1: They both sound good to me, but I prefer "military matters" because it's not pretentious or excessively literary. Question 2: There are a few adjectives, e.g., galore, that must be postposed.

There are sentences in which postposing the adjective is normal:

In some instances, adjectives can follow the direct object, in which case it is described as postposed, such as
'he paints the house red',
'they made the party wonderful'.

There are set phrases with postposed adjectives:

court-martial
attorney general

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    It seems to me in 'he paints the house red', red is an adverb modifying paints, rather than a postposed adjective modifying house. And perhaps adverbs accept being postposed more easily - that certainly sounds more natural to me than saying adverbs more easily accept being postposed Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 1:35
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    I just mean since it seems to modify the verb more than the noun (same as with make wonderful), maybe those examples of "postponed adjectives" aren't really the same thing as, for example, knights errant and OP's matters military. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 2:23
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    Sentences such as He painted the house red can be analysed as Subject-Verb –Object-Complement. More specifically, the complement is an object predicative and that slot can be filled by an adjective phrase (as in the example), a noun phrase (He painted the house a nasty colour) or a prepositional phrase (He painted the house on the outside). Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 7:44
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    @Barrie: I'm afraid assigning a label like "adjective phrase" doesn't really enlighten me. I can see red is just a typical adjective in "He painted the red house", but when it's postponed to "He painted the house house red" it no longer seems to be the same animal as OP's example. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 15:26
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    @FumbleFingers. I wasn’t really commenting in the context of the OP’s question, but in matters military the adjective is placed after the noun for stylistic effect. That is not the case in He painted the house red, where red is predicative. In matters military the adjective is still attributive, even when it comes after the noun. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 17:49
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We all know the rule of thumb that you ‘never put an adjective after the noun which it is describing’.

A more accurate statement is: Adjectives usually occur in the attributive or the predicative position; there are some that are used solely, or in certain circumstances, post-positively (adjectives do as well appear in reduced clauses and sentence fragments).

Collins CoBuild English Grammar lists four sub-classes of post-positive adjectives, ie adjectives which must or may be used post-nominally (Points 1 - 4 below are taken from my copy of Collins CoBuild English Grammar, though I've added the comments for class 1 and given new examples. The rest, apart from the obvious reference back to the thread, is semi-original - I can't remember where I've picked it up or my selection process for retaining as valuable / discarding. I'm certainly quoting myself in part from 'Wordwizard'. Oh, and the fourth position for adjectives is the absolute usage: Happy with his lolly, Tim did not see the kingfisher dart past.):

  1. Adjectives used only post-positively: designate elect extraordinaire incarnate manqué (galore is often included here, but I think is far more quantifier-ish) (note the loan-word connection involved; in French, adjectives are usually postposed, of course)

  2. Some adjectives are used immediately after a measure, eg three miles high: broad deep high long old tall thick wide

  3. The adjectives concerned involved present responsible proper can be used before or after the noun they modify – but the meaning changes: Do you think they are responsible people? The people responsible will be brought to justice.

  4. The adjectives affected available required suggested may be used either pre- or post-nominally with no change of meaning: We haven’t got the required money / money required.

I’d add a fifth usage - deliberately archaizing contexts (regards to StoneyB), often with a nod to G & S say. matters military; matters mathematical where the accepted word order is reversed for effect. This could get very tedious very quickly, and prompted the original posting.

Attributive adjective + noun (phrase) and noun (phrase) + post-positive adjective have often become collocations or even compound nouns (red sunset; Blue Moon // devil incarnate; President Elect), and are often set idioms.

I'd suggest that especially Latin connections are jealously guarded by highbrow scholars (as in present continuous) and lawyers (as in fee simple absolute), in their jargon.

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    +1 One niggle: Off the top of my head I'd consider three miles a noun phrase modifying high - "How high? -Three miles." Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 12:34
  • +1 Wish you provided some links. Also, delineated the quoted portions, annotations and the rest.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 12:57
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    @StoneyB: I agree. Cobuild is useful but not infallible. 'Skin deep' is a numberless variant - we do seem to have a noun modifying an adjective! Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 19:30
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    I think it might be good to explain the difference between "responsible people" and "people responsible". The former suggests that the people being described are a subset of an an indefinite set of people who happen to be responsible. The latter equates an earlier-described set of people to a bounded set of people who are responsible.
    – supercat
    Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 20:52
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    First Edition (1990); 2002 reprint. / I'm not aware of any recent changes in the usages they list. Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 18:00

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