Where do adjectives go?

rogersgeorge on December 8th, 2011

In many languages, adjectives come after the word they modify. This makes sense—first you find out the word, then you learn some details about it. Not so English. Almost all the time we put the adjective first, and make you hold your breath until you find out what’s being modified. Fortunately, we also insist the the adjective be as close as possible to the word it modifies so the wait is short, and to prevent extra candidates from getting in the way. So we say “the literature book” and avoid saying “the literature that-was-assigned-by-my-teacher book.”

Another thing about adjectives is that they don’t show number. It’s “literature books.” “Literature doesn’t change to, say, “literatures” to go with “books.” In many languages adjectives do show number—and gender, too. This match-up of number and gender is called agreement, by the way.

English has three exceptions to the adjective-first rule. Three that come to mind, anyway; perhaps someone can remind me of more. They are “court martial,” “notary public,” and “attorney general.” The second word is the adjective. If you want a plural, you say”courts martial,” “notaries public,” and “attorneys general.”

One particularly tricky adjective is “only.” We tend to put “only” at the very front of the sentence if we can, rather than in front of the word it modifies. This bad habit has been around for along time. I quote the November 1911 Scientific American:

The importance of the industry which turns out the little splinters of wood tipped with sulfer is only recognized when the average smoker tries to contemplate his predicament if he had to go back to the time when he had to coax a spark from a tinder-box.

Man managing modern match-making machinery

The “only” in this sentence really refers to the clause that starts with “when the average smoker…” It’s grammatical for it to refer to “recognized,” but other words can fit there, too.  In fact, we can improve the sentence more. As it stands, the sentence is not strictly true. This importance can be recognized on other occasions; for example, when someone reads about it in Scientific American. How about using a less absolute word in place of “only”? Something like “easily.”

Here’s another example, from one of the most scholarly books I have read lately, The Five-Factor Model of Personality, edited by Jerry S. Wiggins.

Ozer and Reise (1994) warn us: “Personality psychologists who continue to employ their preferred measure without locating it within the five-factor model can only be likened to cartographers who issue reports of new lands but refuse to locate them on a map for others to find.”

Is making this comparison the only thing you can do with these people? Couldn’t you correspond with them? How about buy their books or read their papers? The writer is saying that the best comparison  is about them being a misguided cartographer, not that comparing is the only thing you can do with them. I suspect the word “only” could be removed from this sentence altogether without harm.

The point is if you want your writing to be as clear as possible, put “only” right in front of the word it refers to, and be sure you really mean “only.”

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Modifier matters

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2011

Occasionally I harp on where you put “only” in your writing. With the right sentence, you can create a humorous (or disastrous) misunderstanding by inadvertently modifying the wrong word. Here’s a good example of the effect on meaning caused by where you place the modifier. I put the key phrases in italic to make them, um, obvious.

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult. —C.A.R. Hoare

In this case, the writer wanted to say it both ways to make a point.  Using similar constructions like that calls attention to what he wants to say. Nice.