Adjectives not used in the attributive position

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Most adjectives in English may be used in three ways:

  • immediately before the noun they qualify and preceded as appropriate by the definite or indefinite article - for example, 'The new teacher left after only one term', 'They lived in an attractive bungalow not far from the sea', 'Wild animals should not be kept in zoos'. Adjectives used in this way are said to occupy the attributive position.
  • after the verbs 'to be', 'to seem', 'to look', 'to appear', 'to become', etc., and without an immediately following noun - for example, 'The dress she was wearing looked expensive', 'The courses he taught proved very popular'. Adjectives used in this way are said to occupy the predicative position.
  • immediately after or immediately before the noun they qualify but in either case separated from it by a comma, and never preceded by the definite or indefinite article - for example, 'Nature, red in tooth and claw, shows little compassion for sick or wounded animals', 'Weary after his long journey, James did not say much during the meal, but Jane, loquacious as ever, prattled on about her recent holiday'. Adjectives used in this way typically form part of a larger phrase, as in the examples.

However, a small number of adjectives cannot be used in the first of these three ways - for example, 'asleep'. We may say 'The baby is asleep' or 'The baby, asleep in his mother's arms, was carried into the house', but not 'The older children gazed affectionately at the asleep baby': we should have to say 'The older children gazed affectionately at the sleeping baby'.

Many of the adjectives which, like 'asleep', cannot be used in the first of the three ways distinguished above, also begin with 'a' - for example, 'afloat', 'afraid', 'agape', 'aghast', 'alight', 'alive', 'awake', 'awash'.

Etymological note: the a- prefix in these adjectives is usually the Old English on-, as in abed ('on, or in, a bed'), atop ('on top of') and abeam ('on the beam of', or to the side of [a ship]. This prefix was later applied to verbs of state such as 'sleep', 'wake', 'float' etc. So asleep means 'in a state of sleeping'; awake means 'in a waking state'; and afloat means 'floating'.


See also Adjectives placed after the nouns they qualify, Postpositive adjectives, and, for adjectives which cannot be used in the second and third ways, Adjectives used only in the attributive position.