My husband was sound asleep.

According to Merriam Webster, the word "sound" in "sound asleep" is an adverb. What part of speech, then, is "asleep"? ("Asleep" can only be an adjective or adverb, and not a verb?)

  • Was is the verb. Asleep is an adjective. Could you be more specific about the difficulty?
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 14, 2015 at 15:43
  • @AndrewLeach. If "asleep" is an adjective why can't I use it in attributive position ("an asleep baby")?
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:02
  • she is very beautiful. Beautiful is an adjective
    – Centaurus
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:02
  • 1
    @fdb Because asleep is one of the few predicate-only adjectives.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:10
  • 2
    @AndrewLeach. Etymologically, "asleep" is a preposition+noun phrase (a-sleep) which was eventually reinterpreted as an adverb. That is why it cannot be used as an attribute. “Afraid” is the past participle of the verb “to affray”. In older English it can be used as an attribute (examples in OED), though in modern English it is normally predicative only, perhaps by false analogy to “asleep”.
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:36

3 Answers 3


An adjective modifies (describes) a noun.

  • The door is painted.
  • The car is locked.
  • The baby is asleep.

An adverb can modify an adjective to provide more detail:

  • The door is badly painted.
  • The car is locked solid. [This is conceivably a debatable example.]
  • The baby is sound asleep.

Some adjectives can only be used predicatively (following a copula as in these examples). Asleep is one of those; afraid is another. [Source: UCL]

  • *An asleep baby
  • *An afraid child

Some adjectives can only be used attributively (before the noun). Main is one such.

  • This is the main reason.
  • *This reason is main.

A comment has mentioned that afraid and asleep are preposition+noun phrases which were eventually reinterpreted. This may well be the case, and probably explains why they are only available predicatively. It doesn't necessarily assert that they are now adverbs rather than adjectives.

  • I'm not arguing but checking. How do you explain 'half asleep' as in this example? --> Ray is going to put some doors on the small barn and I'm keeping her in there,” Amber told a half asleep Tommy as she sat on his bed the next morning. books.google.co.uk/… Sep 14, 2015 at 18:23
  • 1
    @Chasly Interesting example. I think that once you make it "half-asleep" it's far enough away from the old preposition+noun phrase that it can function more as a conventional attributive adjective, even if only colloquially. One might speak of a very-afraid child, too. [That book is self-published, so probably not edited. I'd prefer half-asleep to be hyphenated, along with very-afraid.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 14, 2015 at 18:36
  • If you were tasked with editing it, how would you change it? (apart from adding a hyphen) Sep 14, 2015 at 18:47

An adjective doesn't necessarily have to be followed by a noun.

  • "sound" as in "sound asleep" is an adverb and it means "deeply or completely."
  • "asleep" is an adjective and means "in a state of sleep"

see other examples of adjectives preceded by adverbs: "completely wrong", "always late", "never cold"

  • Nobody is claimimg that adjective has to be "followed by a noun". But I maintain that if a word is an adjective it has to be possible to use it attributively. Not the same thing.
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:08
  • @fdb - See here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/63731/…
    – user66974
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:09
  • 1
    @fdb What are you basing that claim on? Not all adjectives can be used attributively, and not all adjectives can be used predicatively. Here is a brief overview. At least some of the adjectives on the predicative-only list given there are quite demonstrably not adverbs. Sep 14, 2015 at 16:38

Note the following:

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, determiner, noun phrase, clause, or sentence.


Therefore an adverb can modify an adjective, e.g.

The baby is sound asleep --> Noun phrase/verb/adverb/adjective

EDIT (in response to a comment)

Definition of asleep in English: adjective& adverb

1 In or into a state of sleep:

[AS ADJECTIVE]: she had been asleep for over three hours

[AS ADVERB]: he soon fell asleep

Oxford Dictionaries

You can see that, according to this dictionary, when 'asleep' is used in this way with the verb 'to be', it is considered an adjective.

  • Or another adverb.
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:09
  • @fdb That's already stated in the quote I gave. Sep 14, 2015 at 16:10
  • So how does your remark answer the question? The question is whether "asleep" is an adjective or an adverb.
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:12
  • Please read my answer carefully. I answer that in the final line. I clearly indicate that it is an adjective. Sep 14, 2015 at 16:17
  • Yes, you say that you think it is an adjective, but you give no arguments to support your oppinion.
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2015 at 16:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.