Witness this noun phrase that has an attributive adjective:

"the angry girl"

Witness this sentence that has a predicate adjective:

"The girl is angry."

Both adjectives in the last two examples can be modified by adverbs:

"the constantly angry girl" "The girl is constantly angry."

However, prepositional phrases seem to me to be ungrammatical when modifying attributive adjectives.

"??the angry with her brother girl" "The girl is angry with her brother."

So too with modifier complement clauses:

"??the so angry that she could have had a heart attack girl"

"The girl was so angry that she could have had a heart attack."

Are my attributive adjective examples ungrammatical or just ugly? If they are ungrammatical in English, are they also ungrammatical in other languages?

  • For Chinese, see Yip and Rimmington’s ‘Chinese – A Comprehensive Grammar’ sect. 5.3.2 ‘Longer Attributives’. According to this source, while they are not ungrammatical, ‘Chinese is not a language that is comfortable with long attributives.’ Thus they are often divided up and placed after the noun (rather than appearing before the noun with –de.) – neubau Feb 13 '14 at 17:07
  • Yes...there's no clause in Chinese so you can put the whole clause as a long attributive... – user58955 Feb 17 '14 at 12:42

It's not quite true that these heavy phrases cannot be used as attributive adjectives in English. They can; but they cannot occupy the ordinary prenominal attributive position. Instead, they are postposited:

The plainly-dressed brown-eyed girl angry with her brother stormed out of the room; the other girls remained.

Some folks treat this as ‘reduced relative clause’, but that strikes me as an unnecessary complication, particularly in light of the contrasting construction of the same constituents in German which fdb cites. To my mind, the difference is that German places more importance on keeping the subject and the verb next to each other than English does, whereas English places more importance on maintaining left modification inside the determiner-to-noun chain.

It is also possible to shift such phrases to other locations—but there they tend to be understood as bearing at least some degree of sentential modification as well:

Angry with her brother, the girl stormed out of the room.
The girl stormed out of the room, angry with her brother.

Both of these imply a causal relationship between the anger and the storming.


I would say that “the angry with her brother girl” is not grammatically correct in English, though you might have a hard time finding a rule to that effect in an English grammar. On the other hand, the exact equivalent is perfectly acceptable in, for example, German (“das mit seinem Bruder zornige Mädchen”). So there is no “cross-linguistic” ban on this sort of structure.

  • I'm not an expert in German, so I don't mean to nitpick. This is an honest question: Shouldn't that be "das auf seinen Bruder zornige Mädchen"? – dainichi Feb 20 '14 at 2:14
  • Yes, "zornig auf" is better. – fdb Feb 20 '14 at 12:06

Stoney's answer touches on the key aspect of the phenomenon that is addressed in the question. There is a rule in syntax that is valid for many European languages (and perhaps for other languages as well) that can be formulated as follows:

Constraint (first formulation) A premodifier of a noun (e.g. attributive adjective) may not itself have a postmodifier.

In slightly different words:

Constraint (second formulation) A predependent of a noun may not itself have a postdependent.

The examples produced in the question that are awkward all violate this constraint. Here are some further examples:

(1) a. ??a proud of his children father b. a father proud of his children

(2) a. ??the upset with the problem student b. the student upset with the problem

(3) a. ??a crazy about politics activist b. an activist crazy about politics

The a-examples all violate the constraint, whereas when the adjective phrase is positioned after the noun, the structure is fine.

The motivation for the constraint probably has to do with processing efficiency. If one examines the syntax trees for these examples, the a-structures all contain an elbow of a sort that immediately precedes the noun, whereas the b-structures no longer have such an elbow. Syntactic structures that consistently climb (left branching) or consistently fall (right branching) are easier to process than syntactic structures that mix left and right branching. There are numerous phenomena of syntax that are sensitive this aspect of syntactic structures, e.g. extraposition and shifting. These mechanisms serve to reduce center embedding (i.e. the presence of elbows in the structure) and they thus aid processing. The constraint here concerning the pre- and postmodifiers of nouns appears to be a general principle of syntax that also serves to aid processing. It reduces center-embedding (i.e. elbows). This phenomenon is discusssed in detail here:

Osborne, Timothy 2003. The Left Elbow Constraint. Studia Linguistica 57/3, 233-257.

  • Very interesting! I think Danish would provide a good example of your constraint, since it allows "An of his children proud father" like German, but unlike English (AFAIK). In German left-branching is quite common (in subclauses), but in Danish it seems isolated to this case. – dainichi Feb 20 '14 at 2:51
  • @dainichi, yes, German and the other Germanic languages all obey the constraint. German, with its extended participle phrases provides particularly strong evidence for the constraint, e.g. der ein schoenes Lied singende Mann 'the a nice song singing man'. The present participle in such cases can have pre-dependents, but never postdependents. – Tim Osborne Feb 20 '14 at 17:46
  • My point was actually that Danish provides even stronger evidence. Left branching is nothing special for German, since it happens all the time in subclauses. Danish doesn't have left branching in subclauses, but your constraint is so strong that prenominal modifiers HAVE to use it, although otherwise not common in Danish. "Den af sin søn stolte far" (The of his son proud father). – dainichi Feb 21 '14 at 1:25
  • OK, I understand. Thanks for pointing that out. A follow-up question: Can the AP be positioned after the noun in Danish (like it is in English)? If it can, does the adjective's complement precede or follow the adjective? – Tim Osborne Feb 21 '14 at 18:35

I think that the rules formulated by Tim are valid in many languages, but not in all. They are not valid in languages with a very free word order, like Latin or Sanskrit. In Latin you can say:

puella fratri irata

irata fratri puella

puella irata fratri

fratri puella irata


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