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What Is an Attributive Adjective?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 17, 2024
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Nearly everyone knows that nouns are words that represent things, places, and ideas, while verbs are names for actions. Not everyone knows that words that describe or modify verbs are called adverbs, while those that do the same work for nouns are adjectives. Adjectives can be either predictive or attributive, and to most people, it’s easier to identify an attributive adjective because they are placed directly in front of the noun.

For example, if the sky is bright blue and filled with white clouds, people say it’s a beautiful day. Here, beautiful modifies day, and because it’s placed directly before the noun, it’s an attributive adjective. For that matter, the sentence contains another attributive adjective because it describes the clouds, a noun, as white.

In the sentence above, there is also an example of a predictive adjective. The statement begins “If the sky is bright blue ...”. Here, bright and blue modify the noun sky. However, they follow the noun and require the linking verb, a form of to be. This is a basic definition of a predictive adjective.

For the most part, adjectives are fairly flexible. Many are happy to serve in either an attributive or predictive way. People can discuss the white clouds or mention that the clouds are white, for example. In the first case, the adjective is attributive, while in the second, it is predictive.

English, like all languages, isn’t a perfectly neat package of words that always functions in easily identifiable ways. In fact, not all adjectives can work in either predictive or attributive ways. For example, the adjective mere functions solely as an attributive. People can call someone a mere child, but they cannot say the child is mere.

An example of an adjective that cannot do attributive work is the word afraid. It is not grammatically correct to talk about an afraid kitten. Instead, people say, “The kitten is afraid.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that certain adjectives are, in fact, attributive but are placed directly behind the nouns they modify rather than before them. The wealthy man can leave money to his heir apparent but not to his apparent heir. When actors finish their lines, they exit stage right but not right stage. It is a fact that an attributive adjective doesn’t require the linking verb to be or to seem to make it attributive.

Whether someone can correctly identify whether an adjective is attributive or predictive isn’t required for that speaker to use them correctly. Communicating using language is natural to all people, and language itself existed long before the grammatical rules that dissect it. Modifiers add richness and specificity to images and information, which is their first and only real purpose.

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