Q&A: “Bodies corporate” and other post-positive adjectives

Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, something common in other languages, but a little rarer in English…
Q: Hello Australian Writers’ Centre, sorry I’m late.

A: Oh, didn’t actually realise we scheduled these things, but okay.

Q: Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m late?
A: No. It’s like when someone just puts “Bad day” on their Facebook status just so that people will ask them to elaborate.

Q: Well… okay, if you insist, I will tell you. I had a building meeting. My neighbour, Bill, wants to paint his door bright pink, but the body corporate is against it. And that’s where my question comes in…
A: Well, we don’t live in your building, so it doesn’t seem fair to––

Q: No, not that. One of the members was talking about something that “other bodies corporate did” and it just sounded silly. It’s silly, right? Right?
A: It’s correct though.

Q: Seriously? “Bodies corporate”?  
A: Yes, you’ve stumbled upon an interesting aspect of English. Are you familiar with post-positives?

Q: Haha, well most of the post I get isn’t very positive. Bill….Bill….Bill….Bill…
A: You certainly get a lot of bills in the mail.

Q: No, I’m always getting Bill’s mail. You know Bill – he lives next door and wants to paint his door pink. Our postie is half-blind and delivers his mail to me.
A: Okay, well it’s not that kind of post-positive.

Q: Oh, so you’re talking about social media? Because I always post positive things – never stuff like “Bad day”. Just the other day I posted a picture of a kitten and a puppy and a baby fur seal all holding hands and riding a tricycle while eating cupcakes and playing ukuleles. It got 97 likes.
A: Okay this could go on all day, so we’ll just explain it. Post-positive adjectives are those that come after the noun that they’re modifying. So instead of a “corporate body” for your building, it’s termed “body corporate”. Others include “mission impossible”, “princess royal”, “film noir” or “sister-in-law”. It’s partly a throwback to medieval times.

Q: Well yes, it does seem all a bit backward.
A: Well, it’s actually the normal way of doing things in languages like French, Spanish or Italian – adjective coming after the noun. But in English, we tend to not go that route. The ones that remain are either leftovers from French legal/military influences or are established traditional phrases.

Q: And plurals like “bodies corporate”?
A: Well if you think about what happens when you make something a plural, you’re not doing anything different, per se. Simply adding an S (or “ies” for bodies) to the noun. It’s just that the noun isn’t at the end.

Q: Quick side question – what does it mean when you say “per se”.
A: It translates from Latin as “by itself” or “as such” – intrinsically, essentially, in essence.

Q: Thanks. So, “bodies corporate” is correct.
A: Sure is. As are “courts-martial”, “sisters-in-law”, “attorneys general”, “sergeants major” and “heirs apparent” to name just a few. You also have ones which are always in plural form like “Alcoholics Anonymous”, “accounts payable” and the “Brothers Grimm”.

Q: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen “attorney generals” used.
A: It’s true that there’s a push to switch it, but for now, it remains a throwback from another language and another time. “Time immemorial” you might say.

Q: I’d never say that. So, are there other places you’d find post-positives?
A: Places aplenty! (That’s another one.) They can be used purposefully by a writer to add poetic effect to their words – like “murders most foul” or “words unspoken”. It makes things a bit more dramatic, old-fashioned or grand. Also, reversing it often subtly changes the meaning.

Q: How does it change the meaning?
A: “We vow to catch the people responsible” vs “we vow to catch the responsible people.”

Q: Ahhh okay, fair enough. I guess that changes things. I hope they catch them.
A: And some adjectives are purely post-positive – they always appear after the noun. Things like “extraordinaire” – (presenter extraordinaire) or “galore” (courses galore).

Q: Okay, all this talk has made me hungry. I’m off to eat some post-positive food like eggs Benedict and spaghetti bolognaise.
A: Say hi to Bill!

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