Adjectives whose meaning depends on position

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The meaning of certain adjectives depends on their position in the sentence, specifically, on whether they come before or after the noun they qualify. Three of the most common adjectives of this type are 'present', 'responsible', and 'concerned'.

  • When 'present' precedes the noun it qualifies, i.e., is used prenominally, it means 'existing, or relating to, this moment or period of time' as in "The present crisis will not be resolved quickly" or "The present government have failed to deal with the situation". ('Present' in this sense is contrasted with 'past', sometimes 'previous'; and 'future', sometimes 'next'.) However, when 'present' follows the noun it qualifies, i.e. is used postpositively, it means 'being or existing in, or relating to, this (or some other specified) place', as in "The members present voted unanimously against the resolution". ('Present' in this sense is contrasted with 'absent.)
  • When 'present' is used after the verb 'to be' and does not immediately precede or follow a noun, i.e., is used predicatively, it means 'being or existing in, or relating, to this (or some other specified) place', as in "All the boys in the class are present today, but some of the girls are absent".
    • The different ways in which 'present' is used make possible the construction of such apparently paradoxical sentences as "The members present are not representative of the present members" (i.e., 'The members who are here, in this room, are not representative of all those who are at the moment members [of the society]'.)
  • When 'responsible' precedes the noun it qualifies it means 'able to take rational decisions, having a sense of responsibility, reliable', as in "Any responsible person would have informed the police", or "Responsible parents ensure that their children do not eat too many sweets". (The opposite of 'responsible' in this sense is 'irresponsible'.)
  • However, when 'responsible' follows the noun it qualifies, it means 'being the agent or cause of', as in "The police will find the person responsible for this brutal murder". (The opposite of 'responsible' in this sense is 'not responsible'.)
  • When 'responsible' is used after the verb 'to be' and does not immediately precede or follow a noun, it may have either of the above meanings. Thus "His father is responsible" is ambiguous: it may mean either that his father has a sense of responsibility and is reliable or that he is the agent or cause (of some (usually undesirable) state of affairs), the correct interpretation being determined by the context.
    • Again, the different ways in which 'responsible' is used make possible the construction of apparently paradoxical sentences, such as "The person responsible cannot be a responsible person" (i.e., 'The person who is the cause (of a certain state of affairs) cannot be a person with a sense of responsibility".)
  • When 'concerned' precedes the noun it qualifies it means 'worried, anxious, or troubled', as in "Concerned patients should consult their doctor". (The opposite of 'concerned' in this sense may be either 'unconcerned' or 'not concerned'.)
  • However, when 'concerned' follows the noun it qualifies, it means 'involved, implicated, or guilty', as in "The police will trace the person concerned" or "The students concerned will be notified by the university". (The opposite of 'concerned' in this sense can only be 'not concerned'.)
  • When 'concerned' is used after the verb 'to be' and does not immediately precede or follow a noun, it may have either of the above meanings. However, when 'concerned' means 'worried, anxious, or troubled', it takes the preposition 'about' (as in "He is concerned about his son's progress"), but when it means 'involved, implicated, or guilty' it takes the preposition 'in' (as in "They suspect him of being concerned in the robbery").
    • Again, we can exploit the different senses of 'concerned' to construct apparently paradoxical sentences, such as "No concerned person could be concerned" (i.e., 'No person who is troubled [about a certain state of affairs] could be involved [in this unsatisfactory plan]')

See also Proper.