What Is a Predicative Adjective?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Earth seen from Apollo 17
NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Predicative adjective (also called predicate adjective) is a traditional term for an adjective that usually comes after a linking verb rather than before a noun. (Contrast with an attributive adjective.)

Another term for a predicative adjective is a subject complement.

"From a discourse point of view," say Olga Fisher and Wim van der Wurff, "predicative adjectives are often salient because they convey 'new' rather than 'given' information" (in A History of the English Language, 2006).

Examples and Observations of Predicative Adjectives

  • "I was happy, Dad was proud, and my new friends were gracious." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • She seemed unhappy and acutely lonely.
  • "The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe that I never knew what the word 'round' meant until I saw the earth from space." (Cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov, quoted by Daniel B. Botkin in No Man's Garden. Island Press, 2001)
  • "The scene is instant, whole and wonderful. In its beauty and design that vision of the soaring stands, the pattern of forty thousand empetalled faces, the velvet and unalterable geometry of the playing field, and the small lean figures of the players, set there, lonely, tense, and waiting in their places, bright, desperate solitary atoms encircled by that huge wall of nameless faces, is incredible." (Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River, 1935)
  • "The most guileful amongst the reporters are those who appear friendly and smile and seem to be supportive. They are the ones who will seek to gut you on every occasion.” (Mayor Edward Koch)
  • "[American aviator Richard] Byrd was smart, handsome, reasonably brave, and unquestionably generous, but he was also almost pathologically vain, pompous, and self-serving. Every word he ever wrote about himself made him seem valorous, calm, and wise. He was also, and above all, very possibly a great liar." (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)

Identifying Predicate Adjectives

  • "Predicative adjectives most often occur as complement to the verb be, but be allows such a wide range of complements that its value as a diagnostic is quite limited. Much more useful from this point of view are the verbs become and make, and to a lesser extent seem, appear, feel, look, sound, which take a more restricted range of complements." (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Attributive Adjectives and Predicative Adjectives

  • "There are two main kinds of adjectives: attributive ones normally come right before the noun they qualify, while predicative adjectives come after to be or similar verbs such as become and seem. Most adjectives can serve either purpose: we can speak of a 'happy family' and say 'the family appeared happy.' But some work only one way. Take the sentence 'Clergymen are answerable to a higher authority.' Answerable is exclusively a predicative; you could not refer to an 'answerable clergyman.' And higher is strictly attributive; you wouldn't normally say, 'The authority is higher.'
    "Predicative adjectives appear before the noun when used appositively: 'Tall, dark, and homely, he is a natural choice to play the part of Abraham Lincoln.'" (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)

Predicative Adjectives and Adverbs

  • "The distinction between a predicative adjective and an adverb can be tricky. Consider the following example:
    'Early days,' Kathy said, evasive.
    (Barry Maitland, The Chalon Heads)
    At first glance, this looks as if it should be evasively and that the author has omitted the -ly, as many speakers habitually do, but in fact, evasive is a predicative adjective and the sentence could be paraphrased 'Early days,' Kathy said, being evasive." (Barry J. Blake, All About Language. Oxford University Press, 2008)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Predicative Adjective?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/predicative-adjective-1691656. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Predicative Adjective? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/predicative-adjective-1691656 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Predicative Adjective?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/predicative-adjective-1691656 (accessed June 11, 2023).