(Background: I'm a native English speaker who is learning French. The more I learn about French grammar, the more questions I have about English grammar).

(More Background: I wanted to translate the sentence "I need a towel to make the dishes dry" into French, and Google Translate gave me a sentence that, when translated literally into English, seems to be "I need a towel to make dry dishes". It was doing this that made me wonder about the following question.).

I am wondering about the grammatical differences between

"make dry dishes"


"make the dishes dry"

(Note to English Learners: this is not the most natural way to say these sentences!)

I want to know what different grammatical contructions are used here. It seems to me that these two sentences mean somewhat different things; "make dry dishes" sounds like it could apply to if you are (for example) creating brand new dishes from clay; and "make the dishes dry" sounds like it is implying that the dishes are wet and you want to change that.

One confusion is that "dry" seems to be an adjective in both cases. What, then, grammatically makes the second sentence seem to imply a more "active" action?

  • 1
    I doubt either would be used in English. Rather "dry the dishes" for the second one. As you say the meaning of the first one is different. Literal translations often go wrong.
    – user3169
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:20
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is asking about language translation, and is not about learning English.
    – user3169
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:22
  • 1
    Tthe two English sentences here, I admit, aren't the most natural way to say "dry the dishes". I gave the background to how I arrived to think about this question, in fact, partially so that people would understand that I want to know the difference between what is going on grammatically in these two different sentences, instead of asking about the most natural way to say these sentences. My question is intended to be about grammar, not about translation.
    – silph
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:26
  • 1
    I do not like the question, but I do like how it indirectly illustrates how important a part articles play in understanding English.
    – lurker
    Jan 6, 2016 at 4:06
  • "Make dry dishes" makes it sound like you're physically making new dishes which are dry
    – Jojodmo
    Jan 6, 2016 at 6:46

3 Answers 3


The usual place for an attributive adjective is before the noun it modifies.
When one appears elsewhere that's a signal that something else is going on, and
it's probably not an attributive adjective, but a predicate adjective, like tall in He is tall.

  • The verb phrase pattern make Adjective Noun, as in
    make dry dishes, make black tires, make chocolate fudge, make miniature steamshovels,
    is just a verb phrase with main verb make and a direct object noun phrase (e.g, black tires).

  • The verb phrase pattern make Noun Adjective, as in
    make my drink sweet, make the dishes dry, make learning easy, make the bench smooth,
    is actually a complex one: the main verb make plus an infinitive complement clause, i.e,
    make my drink be sweet, make the dishes be dry, etc.

Notice that make already has the superpower of omitting to before infinitives:

  • He made her go away, but not *He made her to go away.
  • He made the dishes be dry, but not *He made the dishes to be dry.

When the infinitive is just an auxiliary be from a predicate adjective, make can delete that, too.
But the predicate adjective remains a predicate adjective; it just doesn't need an auxiliary verb.

  • This is a very good answer which points out the grammar ideas I want to learn about my own native language. I will take a closer look at these ideas over the next few days. I will likely accept this as the answer that solves my question, at that time.
    – silph
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:35
  • This also contrasts the usual order of noun adjective in French, which might be why they put the adjective first, but I'm not a native speaker nor an expert of French. Jan 6, 2016 at 0:36
  • 1
    @John Lawler, the link you gave for "predicate adjective", in your answer, didn't help me understand the difference between attributive adjectives and predicate adjectives; but one of your posts here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/175562/… did. (Just letting you know in case you wanted to know.)
    – silph
    Jan 6, 2016 at 4:02

For your example we wouldn't say either

I need a towel to dry the dishes

We aren't making them dry using another process, we're actively drying them.

However it appears that you're actually asking about the differences between the word order, so:

Make dry dishes = Make (create) dishes which are not wet.

Make the dishes dry = Take some existing dishes (which are presumably wet, due to the fact they can be dried) and dry them.


Basically agree with @johnlawler. Let me add:

In general, I think "make (adjective) (noun)" means to make something of type (noun) that is naturally or inherently (adjective). To "make (noun) (adjective)" means to take a thing of type (noun) which is not presently (adjective) and make it (adjective).

Like if someone said he was going to "make a dark room" -- assuming he didn't mean "darkroom" in the sense of a place where you develop photographs -- I'd take him to mean that he is going to create a room which will naturally be dark. Perhaps it has no windows, etc. But if he said he will "make the room dark", I'd think he meant he was going to turn off the lights.

Or, "make a comfortable chair", make a chair designed in such a way that it is comfortable, like made from soft cushions, well-proportioned to the human body, etc. "Make a chair comfortable": throw some pillows on it, etc.

Thus, "make dry dishes" sounds unlikely to me. My first thought is that it refers to the technique of making the dishes, like, we made them from clay without ever using water in the process. "Make dishes dry" sounds like an awkward way to say "dry the dishes".

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