The prefix a- holds many entries in the dictionary. I am considered with one of them:

a- prefix

to; toward: aside | ashore.

• in a specified state or manner: asleep | aloud.

• in the process of (an activity): a-hunting.

• on: afoot.

• in: nowadays.

To my native ear it seems adjectives formed in such a way cannot precede the noun they describe. A few Google Ngram searches cannot prove or deny this sense, but they do indicate that these adjectives are much more likely to follow than to precede the noun.

This sense could just be because I am more accustomed to this prefix forming adverbs instead of adjectives.

Can adjectives formed with the a- prefix (in a specified state or manner) precede the adjective they describe? If not, what is the rule?

  • Predicate adjectives cannot precede the noun. And many predicate adjectives start with this a- prefix. Dec 21, 2016 at 19:01
  • The prefix a is derived from various words/prepositions and they were attached to a noun to form an adjective. For example, asleep is from Old English on sleep and you can't use "on seelp child" in contemprorary English.
    – user140086
    Dec 21, 2016 at 19:13
  • @Rathony, to be fair, you can't say "child on sleep" in contemporary English either, but you can say "child asleep" even if it is more poetic
    – Unrelated
    Dec 21, 2016 at 19:16
  • It's probably because these are mostly adverbs. Dec 21, 2016 at 19:59
  • @Azor-Ahai I did consider that, but some are strictly adjectives (right now I can only think of the fiery examples aglow and ablaze. I think though that the fact that most such words are adverbs might influence how we treat those that are not
    – Unrelated
    Dec 21, 2016 at 20:01

2 Answers 2


No, those modifiers have to follow what they modify, apparently. You yourself have given the rule. Congratulations on finding it.

  • It's because they used to be prepositional phrases.
    – tchrist
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:30
  • @tchrist, That might explain why they didn't used to be before what they modify, but how does it explain why they aren't now?
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 22, 2016 at 4:32
  • Because we got used to it?
    – tchrist
    Dec 22, 2016 at 4:36

The answer, which should surprise no one, is that English is more flexible than the pronouncements of rule makers. Here is but one example for asleep from Wesley's Wars by J. Robert Ewbank:

Christians know this blind or spiritually asleep man to really be a servant of sin.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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