I accept that my premise may be incorrect, but here it is.

The word alone, when used as an adjective, seems only to fit in sentences of the form:

  1. The X is alone.

and not in the form:

  1. The alone X...

I can't think of any other adjectives that have this property, that is, that are allowed in constructions like (1), but not in (2).

Question 0: Am I right in thinking that The alone X is not correct English?

Question 1: Are there any other such adjectives that have a similar behavior?

Question 2: Is there a word for such an adjective and is there any rationale for their existence?

  • 2
    Good example. It still feels a little strange - I think I would probably say "the one who was alone had an umbrella". Maybe it's more of a question of idiom than correctness, but still... it strikes me as a strange aberration.
    – Dancrumb
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:09
  • 3
    You might be mixing up "alone" and "lone". "The lone X" makes more sense to me than "The alone X". However, "The X is alone" is okay and it uses "adjective" in place of noun. That's all.
    – NVZ
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:18
  • 1
    Dancrumb, I edited your post to include a short proof that 'alone' is an adjective in (1). I also re-ordered your questions (for aesthetic and pedagogical reasons). Roll-back if you don't like.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:19
  • 5
    The corresponding adjective is lone. Also, lonely.
    – Kris
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:25
  • 2
    @Dancrumb Please wait a day or two before selecting an answer. You may get several more answers with other ideas or different advice. But people may not bother to write you another answer if you've already selected one! :-) Jun 29, 2016 at 15:11

3 Answers 3


There are three main positions for adjectives in English:

  1. Predicative: where they occur as the Predicative Complement of a verb, such as FEEL, LOOK, SEEM or BE:

    • He felt alive.
    • The elephants looked serene.
    • She seemed discombobulated.
    • He was irate.
  2. Attributive: where they occur as the modifier of a noun:

    • You're talking utter nonsense.
    • That's a large elephant you have there.
    • I can't stand the hypocritical cant of politicians
    • The once ubiquitous sparrow is now an endangered species.
  3. Postpositive: where they occur after the noun they are modifying:

    • the quickest route possible
    • the worst conditions imaginable
    • the best deal available
    • the body politic

Notice that the adjective responsible can occur in all three positions. So we can say that responsible can be a predicative, attributive and postpositive adjective. This would basically just be saying that responsible is an adjective that can undertake all the normal adjective functions that we normally expect adjectives to be able to.

However, some adjectives can only be used in some of these positions. In other words the syntactic functions that they can carry out are restricted. For example, notice that the adjective alive in group one cannot be used attributively:

  • *I found an alive man. (ungrammatical)

Some people say therefore that alive is a predicative only adjective (this is not correct, as explained further below).

Conversely, the adjective utter in group two can only be used attributively:

  • *Their stupidity was utter. (ungrammatical)

Utter is therefore often described as an attributive only adjective.

Most adjectives that occur postpositively in set phrases only occur postpositively, such as the word politic in group three above. We usually just say that the words are postpositive adjectives.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) broadly categorize adjectives with restricted functions into two categories: attributive-only adjectives and never-attributive adjectives. Attributive-only adjectives are:

  • "Adjectives that do not normally occur except as (heads of) attributive modifiers [...]".

Never-attributive adjectives are:

  • "Adjectives which can occur predicatively or postpositively, but not attributively".

Note that this is a much better description of the adjective alive, for example, which can of course occur postpositively as well as predicatively:

  • Anything currently alive is salvageable.

References: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston & Pullum, 2002. pp 553-562.

  • 1
    "I found a man alive" (postpositive) seems quite grammatical to me, so I"d say it's "never-attributive" rather than "predicative only". Jun 29, 2016 at 21:10
  • @MontyHarder Thanks for the helpful comments :) You're quite right, which is why the CaGEL description is the best one. I realise my original description is not. I didn't make it clear that it isn't a good description. I think I've fixed the wording. Do you think the post is correct now? Jun 29, 2016 at 22:51
  • I don't believe there's much value in exploring the "predicative only" dead end. Also, the CaGEL division of adjectives is obviously wrong as written here; in addition to attributive-only and never-attributive adjectives, there are those that can be used attributively but are not exclusively attributive. Jun 30, 2016 at 14:11
  • @MontyHarder Yes, those are called "adjectives" under the H&P framework! ;-) Jun 30, 2016 at 14:13
  • Postpositive is still "attributive"; it's just not in the typical "prepositive" position.
    – eques
    Jun 30, 2016 at 14:53

It is true that 'alone' can occur as both an adjective and an adverb. This is attested by many dictionaries.

If you look at the Oxford definition, you see:


Having no one else present; on one’s own:

[AS PREDICATIVE ADJECTIVE]: 'she was alone that evening'

[AS ADVERB]: 'he lives alone'

Notice that Oxford classifies it as a predicative adjective in its example sentence. Predicative adjectives are adjectives that occupy predicative positions, that is, come after copula verbs like 'is' and 'make'. If an adjective precedes a noun, it is said to be in attributive position. NOTE: The descriptors 'predicative' and 'attributive' are not absolute. They are used to describe an adjective relative to the adjective's grammatical context.

When 'alone' occurs in your example (1), it is indeed in predicative position. But when it occurs in (2), it is not in predicative position, which is why it is ungrammatical.

'Alone' is restricted only to predicative positions. We might call it a predicative-only adjective (following @Araucaria). 'Alone' is not the only adjective that is restricted to predicative positions. 'Afraid' is also restricted to predicative positions. Interestingly enough, other adjectives are restricted only to attributive position (for example 'main'). Here is an instructive passage:

Most adjectives can freely occur in both the attributive and the predicative positions. However, a small number of adjectives are restricted to one position only. For example, the adjective main ("the main reason") can only occur in the attributive position (predicative: *"the reason is main"). Conversely, the adjective afraid ("the child was afraid") can only occur predicatively (attributive: *"an afraid child").

Many adjectives beginning with the preffix 'a-' are restricted to predicative positions (for example 'afloat', 'awake'), as pointed out by @Rathony. The Wikipedia article on English prefixes even lists the prefix 'a-' as one that turns verbs into predicative adjectives. An interesting question is whether or not all predicative-only adjectives were formed from the 'a-' prefix. As far as I know, this is an open question.

  • 1
    I see no evidence above that an adjective that cannot be used in the attributive position is classified as a 'predicative adjective'. Note that 'alone' can be used in absolute constructions (Alone with her thoughts, she sat on the garden bench for hours.) From IGE: Most adjectives can occur both before and after a noun: the blue sea ~ the sea is blue. Adjectives in the first position - before the noun - are called ATTRIBUTIVE adjectives. Those in the second position - after the noun - are called PREDICATIVE adjectives. Jun 29, 2016 at 15:40
  • The Internet Grammar of English, at least, adopts the usage that 'predicative' etc refers to the usage under consideration and is not a label of a type of adjective. Thus 'blue' may be attributive or predicative (or absolute) depending on the way it is being used. This corresponds to transitive and intransitive usages of verbs, and count and non-count usages of nouns. Jun 29, 2016 at 15:44
  • @Edwin Ashworth, I agree, most adj can occur in both positions. (1) The blue sea. (2) The sea is blue. My view is that it is the same adjective in both. It's not an attributive adj in the first sentence and a predicative adj in the second. This would mean that there are two words, 'blue' (qua attributive adj) and 'blue' (qua predicative adj). I don't like this. On my way of speaking 'blue' is simply a predicative-and-attributive adjective, and I use 'predicative adjective' to mean 'predicative-only'. Same goes for 'attributive adjective'. But I might be drifting from common usage.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jun 29, 2016 at 15:46
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth, thanks for helping me to clear this up. It's subtle which is why I have a hard time with it. I've made an edit which I hope conforms with common usage.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jun 29, 2016 at 15:57
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Your being rather fast and loose with the actual facts. CaGEL call that group of adjectives "never-attributive adjectives" which shows that they are using "attributive" to describe the syntactic function and not a class. They use the term 'non-attributive' in passing in an adjectival sense, not as a name for the class, by which it is just meant that these adjectives cannot normally occur in attributive function. You're tilting at windmills. Incidentally, Bas Aarts (of IGE)'s view is that CaGEL may well be the greatest grammar of English ever written. Jun 30, 2016 at 11:16

Many adjectives that start with the letter a function only as a predicate adjective, e.g.:

alike, afraid, asleep, alive, awake, alone and aloof, etc.

Some of the above listed adjectives are made with "a + noun". According to Online Etymology Dictionary, aloof comes from

1530s, from a- (1) + Middle English loof "weather gage," also "windward direction," probably from Dutch loef (Middle Dutch lof) "the weather side of a ship."

Asleep is from

c. 1200, aslepe, o slæpe, from Old English on slæpe (see sleep). The parallel form on sleep continued until c. 1550.

The same dictionary explains about a in the above words as follows:

in native (derived from Old English) words, it most commonly represents Old English an "on" (see a (2)), as in alive, asleep, abroad, afoot, etc., forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns; but it also can be Middle English of, as in anew, abreast (1590s); or a reduced form of Old English past participle prefix ge-, as in aware;

  • 1
    Adjectives that start with the alphabet? You mean like "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzbig"? Jun 30, 2016 at 1:08
  • 1
    @hippietrail You didn't read the a after it? If you find such a mistake, feel free to edit my post.
    – user140086
    Jun 30, 2016 at 4:22
  • Looks like Ben Kovitz has made sense of it. Jun 30, 2016 at 8:17
  • 1
    @hippietrail Yeah. I think that's what you should have done if you want to contribute to this community. Don't you agree?
    – user140086
    Jun 30, 2016 at 8:25
  • 1
    @hippietrail Ben is a nice guy. I can tell you that.
    – user140086
    Jun 30, 2016 at 8:48

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