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adjectives: position
Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible"

Hwang Minsu from Korea writes:

What is the difference in meaning between impossible mission and mission impossible? In English, many adjectives, including past participles, can come before or after nouns. But in many cases I don’t know what the difference is between an adjective placed before the noun and after the noun.


Roger Woodham replies:

adjectives before nouns

Adjectives are normally placed before nouns and this is known as the modifier or attributive position. Thus, we would normally say:

  • Getting all the way round Brazil in five working days proved an impossible mission.
  • He asked me a number of difficult questions.
  • I was sitting next to the open window which I couldn’t close.

Mission impossible, if I remember correctly, was originally the name of an American television series which was later made into a film which you have probably seen. There is, in fact, no reason for putting the adjective after the noun here other than for effect. It sounds original and therefore your attention is drawn to it.



exceptions to the general rule: adjectives after nouns

Attributive adjectives can be placed after the verb to be (and other copular verbs). Then we would have:

  • The mission was impossible.
  • All the questions he asked were difficult.
  • The window remained open.

Copular verbs, which join adjectives to their subjects, describe the state of something or someone or a change of state. They include: be, seem, appear, look, sound, smell, taste, feel, get, become, stay, remain, keep, grow, go, turn:

  • The policemen became angry.
  • The suspects remained calm although I could see that they were anxious.
  • The soup looked, smelt and tasted good.



Also attributive adjectives with their own complement, e.g. capable of achieving first-class degrees, usually require the whole expression to come after the noun rather than before it:

  • We are recruiting students capable of achieving first-class degrees.
    NOT: We are recruiting capable of achieving first class degree students.
    BUT: She was a capable student.
  • I used to live in a house next to the Royal Opera House.
    NOT: I used to live in a next to the Royal Opera House house.
    BUT: I live quite near you. In the next street, in fact.



In a similar way, participles are placed after the nouns which they define:

  • The people questioned about the incident gave very vivid accounts of what had happened.
  • The issues discussed at the meeting all had some bearing on world peace.

In all of these last four examples, however, it is perhaps more normal to use a relative clause:

  • We are recruiting students who are capable of achieving first-class degrees.
  • I used to live in a house which was next to the Royal Opera House.
  • The people who were questioned about the incident gave vivid accounts of what had happened.
  • The issues that were discussed at the meeting all had some bearing on world peace.

Finally, adjectives come after most measurement nouns and after some-, any- and no- words:

  • The fence around the estate was three metres high, thirty-five kilometres long and one hundred and twenty years old.
  • This place doesn’t look very promising, but let’s try and find somewhere nice for dinner.
  • I couldn’t find anything interesting on the television so I had an early night.
  • There’s somebody outside who wants to speak to you. Shall I let him in?
  • Nobody present at the meeting was able to offer me any useful advice.
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