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When and why can adjective phrases come after nouns in English, if at all?

So, firstly: I am not talking about special usages like poetry or drama etc. where people may say things like "The night dark and stormy", but standard normal English (whatever that is).

I will use an example: "The bread available in the bakery looks delicious". This is a pretty normal English sentence, right?

In the above sentence, "the bread available in the bakery" is a noun phrase. "Available in the bakery" looks like an adjective phrase within the noun phrase -- 'available' is an adjective, and "in the bakery" looks like a prepositional phrase adjunct, and of course a phrase headed by an adjective is an adjective phrase. But, if it is an adjective phrase, why does it come after the noun?

I have 2 theories:

  1. There is an omitted 'that is' in the phrase: "The bread available in the bakery" is a shortened version of "The bread that is available in the bakery". --> "available in the bakery", in this sentence, is really a RELATIVE CLAUSE with a dropped 'that' (and also a dropped 'is', which is concerning). What stumps me is, is there are way of determining if the 'that is' is implied, but not present, or if it is actually not present?

  2. There is some special rule that an adjective phrase that contains a prepositional phrase always comes after the noun it modifies. One might say "the bread fluffy in the centre" or "the steak red and bloody in the middle", but not "the fluffy in the centre bread" or "the red and bloody in the middle steak". [but then, what is the explanation for this rule?] [and, are there other types of adjective phrases than come after the noun?]

This seems to me like a weirdly basic but confusing question: it's pretty uncontroversial that adjectives come before the noun in English. "The red dog". Adjective phrases also come before the noun. "The very large, red, and strangely menacing dog". So why do adjective phrases like "available in the bakery" come after the noun instead?

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  • The first theory is the usual one; multi-word post-nominal modifiers are almost always predicate adjective phrases, without the predictable relative pronoun subject and auxiliary be form that are deleted by Whiz-deletion. That solution presupposes relative clause reduction as the source for postnominal modifying phrases. If you don't happen to want to believe in that, you can make up some other theory. But that's the easiest one to motivate, since it fits the data, changes no meanings, and deletes only predictable material (except for the tense, which gets lost with be).
    – jlawler
    Oct 21 at 15:24
  • The basic rule is that one-word modifiers precede the noun they modify; that's what hyphens are for: one-word modifiers precede (like an eleven-year-old boy), but modifiers of more than one word follow (like a boy eleven years old). That's what I call The Eleven-Year-Old Boy Rule. It applies to relative clauses,and to reduced relative clauses, which accounts for pretty much all postnominal modifiers. Note that prenominal modifiers in English are limited to individual adjectives (with adverbs), and that they are unusual in right-branching languages. Spanish is more normal that way.
    – jlawler
    Oct 21 at 15:43
  • 1
    English grammar is evolving. Phrases like “government-furnished apartments” have become all too common. A hundred years ago, such constructions were solecisms. Oct 22 at 11:01
  • But note that they're hyphenated in print, thus following the rule.
    – jlawler
    Oct 22 at 15:33
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As indirectly acknowledged in the question, an adjective that precedes the noun it modifies generally cannot itself take a post-dependent (i.e. a dependent that follows its head), which means if it DOES take a post-dependent, it should follow the noun instead, e.g.

(1) *the fluffy in the center bread

(2) the bread fluffy in the center

(3) *the proud of his children father

(4) the father proud of his children

(5) *the slow to move people

(6) the people slow to move

While there are certainly exceptions of various sorts, the tendency itself is clear; adjectives with post-dependents usually follow the nouns they modify.

There is a principle of syntactic organization that motivates this behavior. Center-embedded structures are more difficult to process than consistently ascending or consistently descending structures. In other words, elbows in the sentence structure are avoided due to the increased processing load that they incur. The next dependency trees illustrate the presence and absence of such an elbow:

enter image description here

The principle of syntactic organization here is similar to the one that is responsible for rendering the following well-known instance of extreme center-embedding incomprehensible:

enter image description here

There are three or four major elbows present such that the syntactic structure extends mostly straight down. Such structures burden the human processor because of the inability to attach the words to the preceding structure as the sentence is produced and processed incrementally left to right. Immediately after dog is uttered, there are three unattached strings that must be maintained in short term memory at the same time: the rat, the cat, and the dog. Short-term memory apparently cannot manage this extreme load; processing breaks down entirely.

The relevant principle, then, is one that prevents center-embedding within noun phrases; it prevents the elbows from occurring that would render the noun phrases difficult to process.

Concerning the potential of ellipsis occurring, whereby often that is would be elided, such ellipsis may be difficult to motivate, for I am aware of no concrete facts that demonstrate the necessity of assuming ellipsis in such cases. The explanation given here would no longer be as insightful if ellipsis were assumed.

Finally, there are a couple of publications that go into this matter in more detail. I would be happy to share them with anyone who might be interested. You can contact me at tjo3ya@yahoo.com.

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  • Your answer appears to present this "feature" as being conditioned by the human mind, citing short-term memory constraints as the reason it exists. But some languages (Russian, sometimes German) really do construct NPs like "*the fluffy in the center bread". It's ungrammatical in English but the word-for-word translation to Russian is perfectly idiomatic. Do you have an explanation for this? Do English speakers have different memory or something?
    – OmarL
    Oct 22 at 12:38
  • I do not know about Russian, but the principle is also present in German. The German translation is das in der Mitte weiche Brot 'the in the center soft bread', where the PP in der Mitte precedes weich rather than follows it. Crucially, the order *das weich in der Mitte Brot 'the soft in the middle bread', where the PP follows weich, is clearly bad. In fact, the principle is quite robust in German. The situation may be similar in Russian, although a native speaker would likely be necessary to test what does and does not work. Oct 22 at 13:15
  • @OmarL so, how do you say “fluffy in the center bread” in Russian? Just curious, can’t figure it out even though Russian is my L1
    – Alex B.
    Oct 23 at 0:41
  • @AlexB. well what about мягкий в середине хлеб, sounds okay to me (but not native)
    – OmarL
    Oct 24 at 6:43
  • @OmarL I guess you could say that, theoretically, it’s just not idiomatic Russian , it sounds very strange to me (never heard anyone saying that in my life). Usually it’s “мягкий хлеб” (soft bread) or even better “свежий хлеб” (fresh bread).
    – Alex B.
    Oct 24 at 13:13

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