The general rules for adjective word order are usually understood as most adjectives coming before the noun they describe, with a few exceptions that follow linking verbs, such as to be (when adjectives come after a verb or object). However, as with everything in English, there are many more exceptions to the usual rules, and there is a variety of situations where adjectives commonly follow nouns, pronouns and verbs.
There are a number of fixed phrases (or collocations) in English where adjectives come directly after a noun. These are often compound nouns, where the adjective describes the preceding noun.
- God Almighty
- court martial
- secretary general
These institutional expressions often describe titles and official positions. There is no particular rule to know when this is appropriate, though they often come from older offices and expressions.
Adjectives that can follow nouns
There are some specific adjectives in English that can be used after nouns. These are used in a similar way to a relative clause:
- Investigate all the routes possible.
This example has the same meaning as Investigate all the solutions that are possible. A number of adjectives ending in –able or –ible can be used this way. Note that these adjectives can come before or after the noun, as a matter of choice.
- Give me all the hamburgers available. / Give me all the available hamburgers.
Some adverbs can be used in a similar way, particularly when showing location:
- Go to the toilet outside.
- Let’s meet in the park downtown.
Sometimes placing an adjective after a noun will have a different meaning, however. For example, proper and present have different meanings depending on their position.
- This is a proper treasure. (genuine/real)
- Only after a lot of searching did they discover the treasure proper. (the main or central part of it)
- He addressed the present committee. (the current committee)
- He addressed the committee present. (the committee there at the time)
Similarly, to describe how much, adjectives of measurement should come after a noun – if they come before the noun, such adjectives describe the type of measurement instead (usually for emphasis).
- The river was four miles long. (distance)
- We walked for four long miles. (the miles felt long/difficult)
- The building was twenty storeys high. (height)
- We climbed twenty high storeys. (each story felt high/difficult)
Some nouns are always followed by adjectives. These are usually words formed with any- , every- and some- prefixes and –thing or –one suffixes. They include everything, something, someone, somebody, nothing, everywhere, anywhere and anybody.
- We are travelling somewhere hot this summer.
- I didn’t do anything wrong!
Adjectives can have complements to describe something specific.
- A skilled man. (in general)
- A man skilled at painting. (a specific skill)
These complements usually follow the noun, and putting the full complement before the noun would sound incorrect.
- NOT A skilled at painting man.
Often, a relative clause may sound more natural.
- A man who is skilled at painting.
With comparative adjectives, superlatives and adjectives that show sequences, the complement can be split, so the adjective comes before the noun and the complement follows. For example: similar, the same, first, best, greater, different and so on.
- We had a different idea to the scientist.
- It was the first song in a series.
- I chose the fourth puppy from the left.
In these cases if the adjective and complement come together after the noun they sound more natural as a relative clause.
- I chose the puppy that was fourth from the left.