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The word postpositive comes from the Latin post (after) and positus (placed), and literally means: placed after. As an adjective, postpositive is used to describe words and affixes that are placed after the word they govern or modify, and as a noun, it denotes words or affixes that are so placed. There is also an adverb postpositively and a verb to postpose, i.e., to place a word or affix after the word it governs or modifies. (The opposite of postpositive(ly) is prepositive(ly), and the opposite of postpose is prepose.)

Postpositive is used in a number of different contexts, and its sense varies slightly according to the context.

Students of English grammar are most likely to find the word applied to adjectives which are placed after the noun they qualify. More specifically, postpositive is applied to:

  • adjectives which in certain set phrases must come immediately after the noun they qualify, e.g., 'general' in 'secretary general', 'martial' in 'court martial' and 'Scots' in 'pound Scots'. Since in other contexts the adjectives 'general' and 'martial' can, and often do, come before the noun they qualify, it could be misleading to refer to them as postpositive adjectives without qualification, and it might be better to say that their occurrence in the phrases 'secretary general' and 'court martial' is a postpositive use of the adjectives or that in these phrases they are used postpositively. (See further Adjectives placed after the nouns they qualify.) Note that whereas in English it is uncommon for adjectives to be postposed in this way, in some other languages (e.g., French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Arabic) adjectives, when used attributively, are normally postposed.)

There are, however, several other types of context in which postpositive may be used, particularly in relation to languages other than English.

  • In Ancient Greek many particles, e.g., gar {for), ge (at least, at any rate, certainly, indeed), men {in truth, surely), oun (therefore)), cannot begin a sentence, i.e., must be placed after some other (usually the first) word in the sentence, and for this reason are sometimes referred to as postpositives. The word which immediately precedes the particle may be any part of speech and, while some particles stand in a close relation to this word - ge, e.g., gives emphasis to the immediately preceding word - this is not always the case: gar and oun, e.g., indicate the relationship of the entire sentence to what has preceded.
  • In some languages, e.g., Turkish and Urdu, the equivalent of prepositions are words that come after the noun or noun phrase they govern, i.e., the word order is not, as in English, 'under the table' or 'before lunch', but 'the table under' and 'lunch before'. Thus 'inside the house' in Turkish is evin içinde (literally 'the house inside') and 'to Amir' in Urdu is amir koo (literally 'Amir to'). The equivalent to prepositions in Turkish and Urdu are thus postpositive and indeed are sometimes referred to not as prepositions but as postpositions - reasonably since 'preposition', coming from the Latin prae (before) and positus (placed), means 'placed before'.
  • In some languages, e.g., Arabic and Turkish, possession is indicated not as in English by possessive adjectives but by a suffix attached to the relevant noun. For example, in Arabic 'my' is indicated by the suffix ii (so that 'my book' is kitaabii and 'my house' is baytii), while in Turkish 'my' is indicated by the suffix (i)m (so that 'my hand' is elim and 'my cat' is kedim). Suffixes like ii and (i)m are sometimes referred to as postpositive affixes. Clearly such postpositive affixes are a feature of many languages and may serve a variety of different functions.

In view of the many ways in which postpositive is used, take care, whenever you encounter the word, to determine exactly how it is being used; and do not use the word yourself without making it clear how you are using it.