Attributive Adjective

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Cover of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" by Judith Viorst.

In English grammar, an attributive adjective is an adjective that usually comes before the noun it modifies without a linking verb. Contrast with a predicative adjective.

Attributive adjectives are direct modifiers of nominals.


  • "Hush-a-by, Don't you cry
    Go to sleep, little baby.
    When you wake you shall find
    All the pretty little horses."
    (Traditional American lullaby, perhaps of African-American origin)
  • "In those tender mornings, the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting, and bragging."
  • "In a rush of pity—sympathy, affection, hope—I said the most stupid thing ever."
  • "A beautiful form is better than a beautiful face; it gives a higher pleasure than statues or pictures; it is the finest of the fine arts.”
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Manners")
  • "I know he was a bad man who did vicious, horrible things, some of them to me, but he had a good side, too. Just like all of us."
  • "He was a gorgeous, heart-stopping, too-yummy-to-be-believed, genuine hunk, and she was crazy to even consider kissing him."
  • "It had been a nasty little affair, a grim and unpleasant war, fought in a dark, never-ending nightmare of ambush and merciless killing--an eye-to-eye, face-to-face war where prisoner was a doubtful word."

Observations on Attributive and Predicative Functions

  • "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.'
    "Attributive adjectives sometimes follow the model of French and come after the noun, as when we refer to accounts payable, something important, proof positive, matters philosophical, paradise lost, a battle royal, the heir apparent, stage left, time immemorial, or a Miller Lite."
    (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007)
  • "There are a significant number of adjectives which, either absolutely or with a certain meaning, are restricted to attributive function (e.g. mere, former, main) or excluded from it (e.g., alone, asleep, glad 'happy/please')."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)


  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969
  • Leonard Michaels, "Viva La Tropicana." The Collected Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
  • Nick Santora, Slip & Fall. State Street, 2007
  • Julianna Morris, Meeting Megan Again. Silhouette, 2001
  • George Brown, The Double Tenth. Arrow, 2012
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Attributive Adjective." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Attributive Adjective. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Attributive Adjective." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).