Attributive Nouns in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Golden tut change
King Tutankhamun is known as the "boy king". Adrienne Bresnahan/Moment/Getty Images

In English grammar, an attributive noun is a noun that modifies another noun and functions as an adjective. Also known as a noun premodifier, a noun adjunct, and a converted adjective

"It is normal that the first or attributive noun of a sequence will be singular," says Geoffrey Leech. "Yet studies of recent English . . . have noted the apparently increasing variety of formations with a plural attributive noun" (Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study, 2010).

Examples include "sports car," "women leaders," and "animal rights campaign."

Examples and Observations:

  • King Tutankhamun is known as the "boy king" because he became the pharaoh of Egypt at the age of nine.
  • "Outside the open window
    The morning air is all awash with angels."
    (Richard Wilbur. "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," 1956)
  • We obtained the permit from a government official.
  • Our son was expelled from nursery school.
  • Attributive Nouns in the Dictionary
    - "The italicized label often attrib placed after the functional label n indicates that the noun is often used as an adjective equivalent in attributive position before another noun:
    bot-tle . . . n, often attrib
    busi-ness . . . n, often attrib
    Examples of the attributive use of these nouns are bottle opener and business ethics.

    "While any noun may occasionally be used attributively, the label often attrib is limited to those having broad attributive use. This label is not used when an adjective homograph (as iron or paper) is entered. And it is not used at open compounds (as health food) that may be used attributively with an inserted hyphen (as in health-food store)."
    (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. Merriam-Webster, 2004)
    - "Webster's New International Dictionary . . . does not call every noun capable of attributive use an adjective but some like cash, land, mind etc. are labelled 'n(oun) often attrib(utive).' However, the distinction between words that are 'n often attrib' and words that are 'adj' is not precise, as the editors themselves claim . . .. Moreover, even one author may provide different explanations for similar cases. Gove (1964:165), for example, considers the word zero in zero modification an adjective in the light of its attributive and predicative uses, despite the fact that it neither inflects for degree nor admits adverbial modification. However, surprisingly enough, for macaroni salad, apparently similar to the zero modification example, he argues that there appears to be a 'strong feeling' against macaroni as an adjective."
    (Isabel Balteiro, The Directionality of Conversion in English: A Dia-synchronic Study. Peter Lang AG, 2007)
  • Positioning Attributive Nouns
    "[A]ny noun can occur in three syntactic positions: as subject, direct object, and indirect object. But in its secondary function of a noun attribute, it occurs only in one position — before a noun. It is true that an attributive noun can modify all three kinds of predicate argument. But these three syntactic positions count as one because the attributive function of the attributive noun is identical in all these positions."
    (Sebastian Shaumyan, Signs, Mind, and Reality: A Theory of Language as the Folk Model of the World. John Benjamins, 2006)
  • Usage Guideline: Multiple Attributive Nouns
    "You see noun clusters in technical proposals and technical documentation. For example, here's a title that appeared on a proposal I received:
    Isn't that a jewel?...

    "Bear in mind, it has always been legal in English to use one noun to modify another noun. The first noun functions as an adjective in such a construction and is usually called an 'attributive noun.' Examples are telephone company, cellular phone, bus stop, marriage certificate, book store, and materials laboratory. The problem arises when a whole slew of nouns are crammed together. The poor reader's brain has no way to decode this mess until he or she has already gone through it once. Then the reader has to go back through, figure out which nouns are functioning as nouns, which are adjectives, and what goes with what, and try to make sense out of it.

    "If you catch yourself writing a noun cluster, what should you do? First, identify the key noun in the sequence. Then put it up front. Look for an opportunity to use a verb, and don't hesitate to link your words with new prepositions."
    (Tom Sant, Persuasive Business Proposals, 2nd ed. AMACOM, 2004)
  • Punctuation With Attributive Nouns
    - "Attributive Nouns. The apostrophe is omitted when a plural head noun ending in s functions as an adjective rather than as a possessor; in other words, when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions 'for' or 'by' rather than the possessive 'of': carpenters union, New York Mets first baseman. If the plural form of the head noun does not end in s, however, the apostrophe is used: the people's republic, a children's hospital. This convention explains the absence of an apostrophe in such proper nouns as Teachers College (in New York City), Department of Veterans Affairs, and Consumers Union...

    "A final problem related to adjectives and adverbs arises from the fact that neither 'adjectiveness' nor 'adverbiality' is a quality inherent to a word. Home, for example, may function as a noun ('This is our home'), as an adjective ('Taste our home cooking'), or as an adverb ('We went home'). Because nouns may function as adjectives (the technical term for a noun that modifies a subsequent noun is attributive noun), 'government offices' is as correct as--and many would say preferable to — 'governmental offices.'"
    (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 2006)
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Attributive Nouns in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Jun. 6, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 6). Attributive Nouns in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Attributive Nouns in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 23, 2018).