What is the difference in meaning when a past participle is used before or after the word? For example, I have put on a torn shirt, and I have put on a shirt torn. What is the meaning of these sentences?

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    English has very few post-positive adjectives. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 13:41
  • @AndrewLeach I would just like to know after all that talk on ELU Meta, whether your comment is considered to be an "answer in comments". I have to say that signals from mods around here get pretty confusing...
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 16:30
  • @Lambie No, it's a comment pointing out what the term of art is. It's also five years old. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 16:35
  • @AndrewLeach I am not sure the question is asking about adjectives that must follow the noun modified. It explicitly is asking about past participles. There certainly are cases where a participle normally follows the noun: e.g., "When was the shirt torn?" It is not a very clear question, but it seems broader than your reading. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 18:47

2 Answers 2


From http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/adjectives/what-is-a-participial-adjective.html (sic)

When a participle is used as an adjective it can be considered to be an adjective and in English the adjective goes before the noun with a few exceptions (e.g. Surgeon general, sergeant major) So it would always be 'torn shirt'.

Unless as previously noted, you are elaborating on the tearing event, e.g. 'a shirt (which has been) torn by the washing machine' in which case it is a participle in an adjectival sub-clause and no longer a simple adjective.

  • What about a mirror cracked? Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 16:06
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    I don't think that this answers this question because it doesn't explain, for example, a sentence like this: "What was the answer given?" The participle seems to function adjectivally (modifying "answer"), doesn't seem to fall into exceptions like "surgeon general" and "sergant major", and is not elaborating on the giving event. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 17:14
  • @MarcInManhattan I have tried to address your point in my answer. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 18:48

It is frequently difficult to know when a participle is being used as an adjective or part of a verb.

The short was torn

Is "torn" an adjective or part of a verbal phrase?

I doubt that there is any objective way to determine which it is and no particular benefit in doing so.

When was the shirt torn?

The problem is the same. We create a problem for ourselves only if we insist on calling it an adjectival use and also insisting that adjective always precede the noun being modified.

The simplest rule seems to be that in questions the passive participle, regardless of whether we label it part of a verbal phrase initiated by a form of the verb "be" or an adjective modifying the subject, follows the subject. It is part of the rule regarding inversion for questions.

Furthermore, there is no rule in English that precludes post-positional adjectives; it is just not the usual word order..

We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, have hallowed it ...

Are we saying that this is bad English because it has post-positional adjectives?

Nevertheless, it is far from normal English to end an indicative sentence with one passive participle unless it is part of a passive verb. There may be cases when it is acceptable, but they are very rare.

The shirt was torn

is fine.

It was a torn shirt

is fine.

It was a shirt, torn

is not fine. It is weird.

It was a shirt, torn, begrimed, and bloody

is atypical, but is grammatical. But "torn" here is not alone in apposition. In fact, I think a single adjective in apposition is much rarer than a list of adjectives.

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    I think that this answer gets closer to the truth, but there are still plenty of situations it doesn't really address. For example, we can place the participle second even without a question: "That was the answer given." Another example: "Justice delayed is justice denied." Such constructions are not uncommon in English. (TBH, I don't think that it's possible to give a complete explanation without writing quite a lengthy answer.) Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 20:41
  • @MarcInManhattan There was a similar question here much more recently ell.stackexchange.com/questions/337373/… where I tried to address the before-vs-after question in my answer: it seems to come down to whether you're emphasizing the 'adjective side' (pre-nominal position) or 'passive verb side' (post-nominal position) of the same form. I don't know if that 100% captures all the nuances, and would be interested to hear your perspective - are you considering writing an answer yourself? :) Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 3:19
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    @QuackE.Duck I agree that how "adjectivy" the participle seems affects whether it premodifies or postmodifies. Some people also say that we should consider things like whiz-deletion (e.g., "fish swimming" can be considered a reduced form of "fish that are swimming"). And then there's also the issue that English likes to put "heavier" (i.e., lengthier) phrases later. And I'm sure that there are other considerations, too, and various exceptions. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 5:06
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    @QuackE.Duck So I think that you have part of the answer, but, as I mentioned in my previous comment, I suspect that a complete explanation would have to be fairly lengthy. (I'm sure that there are academic papers that consider many of the nuances.) Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 5:08

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