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This question has been asked before, but I am not satisfied with the answer. In the course of researching this I developed a theory and now I am unable to verify whether this might be true or against common usage because I am not a native speaker. I will just give an example because formulating it in general is more confusing than helpful.

Jeff Atwood has the attribute black for the property hair color.

So a property (hair color) is a thing belonging to a class (human) while instances of a class (Jeff Atwood) have a concrete attribute (black) associated with this property.

Does that sound reasonable or unlikely?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Bradd Szonye, choster, Brian Hooper, tchrist Feb 9 '14 at 18:19

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  • 1
    The terms attribute and property are synonymous (check in Collins ). This means not that they are always interchangeable, but that they overlap in meaning for at least some senses. And this in turn renders the question meaningless as put. You would have to specify polysemes rather than ask 'What is the difference between [the words] “property” and “attribute”?' – Edwin Ashworth Feb 7 '14 at 22:20
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    Some programming languages may draw that distinction, but English does not. – Bradd Szonye Feb 7 '14 at 22:23
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    I'm not personally aware of a context where property is an abstract “slot” and attribute is a concrete “value.” Some jargon does differentiate the two, but not that way. For example, Python properties are a special type of attribute that is defined procedurally. – Bradd Szonye Feb 7 '14 at 23:45
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    Maybe I am really biased by my programming background where you have properties in classes and every instance has a (property) value for each property. Essentially I am equating (property) value with attribute. XML and friends are different, they call the same things attribute and attribute value. Probably I am really looking for a difference where there is none because I don't like having two words for the same thing. But while looking at usage examples it seemed like this distinction is real. – Daniel Brückner Feb 8 '14 at 0:06
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    Even in software design, that's improper usage. Your comment is far closer to the mark -- "black" is Jeff's value of the (attribute/property) "hair color" – Ben Voigt Feb 8 '14 at 0:17


With reference to the original question, I can't see how terms specific to computer language are relevant.

There are terms used to describe aspects of general language use which go back to Aristotle's 10 categories of being, as laid out within what's now known as his 'Organon'.

The question relates to the classification of the relationship between the terms 'Jeff Attwood', 'Jeff Attwood's hair' and 'the colour of Jeff Attwood's hair'.

In terms of Aristotle's categories, 'Jeff Attwood', 'Jeff Attwood's hair', and 'the colour of Jeff Attwood's hair' would all come under 'Substance'.
I would classify 'Jeff Attwood's hirsuteness' under 'Quality', as an attribute which relates to 'Jeff Attwood'.
Furthermore, I would put 'black' under 'Quality' as an attribute which relates to 'Jeff Attwood's hair'.
In the sentence 'Jeff Attwood has black hair', in terms of the Categories, 'hair' is treated (unclearly) as an attribute of 'Jeff Attwood' and 'black' is treated as described in the previous sentence, becoming an attribute of an attribute.
For a breakdown on the categories, see the Wikipedia link previously cited or my TEDx talk on the importance of linking words to meaning through them here.

I trust this makes things clearer for those unfamiliar with this terminology and shows its greater relevance than computer programming terminology in this context.


From the integrated traditional liberal arts tradition within which I work, there is a link between subject and predicate in a sentence and substance and attribute with reference to Aristotle's 10 categories of being.

The 9 attributes (excluding substance) encompass more than properties might - for instance, two of the categories relate to the substance's position with regards to space and time. Are these, strictly speaking, properties? 'Having' is one of the attributes/categories, and there is no confusion here, as there would be with 'property' used in two conflicting senses - association, or ownership.

It is a sad case of the decline in the teaching of English that this distinction has been forgotten. You can, of course, treat 'property' as synonymous with 'attribute'. The question is why. Since Aristotle's categories are embodied and express different modes of the way in which we think, I can't see how they can be separated from language.

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    I'm pretty sure that Aristotle didn't speak English. – Bradd Szonye Feb 7 '14 at 23:41
  • @BraddSzonye - and your point is? – Leon Conrad Feb 7 '14 at 23:44
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    To state my objection less glibly: I find it strange to decry the loss of something without showing that it was ever in common use to begin with. – Bradd Szonye Feb 7 '14 at 23:48
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    Also, I don't see how it answers the question. It sounds more like a response to the comments on the question. – Bradd Szonye Feb 7 '14 at 23:50
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    A particular philosophy, like a programming language can use words as they please. This is just another jargon and does not change what the actual words mean until and unless the new meaning is accepted in general. – Oldcat Feb 8 '14 at 0:46

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