Adjectives, Before and After

For the first time in a long time, I sat down for a meal in a restaurant the other day, and when I happened to look around, I saw this sign posted for the staff at the wait station: Needed to Be Cleaned Menus. Curious, I thought. It’s referring, of course, to all the extra precautions that have to be taken now in the middle of a pandemic, but what makes that grammatical construction so unusual?

We know that adjectives modify nouns. The word modify means to moderate or restrict, and so when we say that an adjective modifies a noun, we mean that it is bringing the reader’s attention to some characteristic or feature of its noun which is more relevant than others at the moment. An inexpensive restaurant, for example, certainly possesses many other characteristics (perhaps large or popular or loud), but the adjectives we choose to use name the features that have something to do with what else we are saying in a particular context. And, important too, we usually first expect the adjective to precede its noun: an inexpensive restaurant, a friendly staff. When an adjective precedes its noun, it is said to be in the attributive adjective, because there it is naming an attribute, or essential characteristic, of its noun.

There are times, though, when an adjective will follow its noun. We will say, for example, that the servers at that restaurant are friendly. The adjective friendly is identifying a characteristic of the servers at a particular restaurant, and it appears in the predicate of the statement, which begins here with the verb are. (A predicate, remember, is that part of a clause that contains the verb and any other complementing words.) When an adjective follows its noun like this and takes up a position in a predicate, it is called, appropriately enough, a predicate adjective. In this statement, the predicate adjective friendly modifies the noun servers.

Now here is where things get curious. Predicate adjectives themselves are sometimes modified. If I receive a solicitation in the mail, for example, and I am told, Please use the envelope enclosed for your convenience, the adverbial phrase for your convenience is modifying the predicate adjective enclosed by saying why the envelope is enclosed—and enclosed is a predicate adjective modifying envelope because it appears in the predicate of the clause, which begins here with the verb use.

Or, if I say that I have ordered the materials required for the presentation, the phrase for the presentation modifies the predicate adjective required by specifying the purpose of the materials—and required is a predicate adjective because it appears in the predicate of the clause, which begins with the verb have ordered. (And if the full truth be told, these predicate adjectives actually belong to what is called an implied predicate and are called predicative, but we will, thankfully, say no more about that.)

Predicate adjectives, then, which are themselves modified in some way should stay in the predicate of a clause. We would not write, for example (though I’ve seen it), Please use the enclosed for your convenience envelope, or I have ordered the required for the presentation materials. Doing so transposes what are properly predicate adjectival phrases into attributive ones, and creates unwieldily long and logically cumbersome descriptions. Concision is a virtue, but too much concision becomes density.

And this is why our original example, Needed to be Cleaned Menus, appears unusual. The phrase to be cleaned is modifying the adjective needed, and that adjective, which should therefore properly be in the predicate position, is standing here as an attributive adjective before the noun it modifies, menus. We can revise the phrase, then, to read Menus Needed to be Cleaned, or better, simply, Menus to be Cleaned. Clarity in writing means the right words in the right number in the right place, and the slightest jostling can quickly make an otherwise clear path tortuous.


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