I've read somewhere that some adjectives cannot be used in the predicative position; for example "this is a major problem" is acceptable, but "the problem is major" is not acceptable.

I'm wondering what other adjectives cannot be used in predicative position other than major. Is it the only one we have in English?

  • 5
    "The problem is major" sounds ok to me.
    – user10893
    Aug 27, 2011 at 9:27
  • 1
    Major can be used as predicative: "The use of drugs is a major problem."
    – apaderno
    Aug 27, 2011 at 13:01
  • @simchona, i see, so this page is wrong: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_grammar#Adjectives
    – Pacerier
    Aug 28, 2011 at 16:28
  • I would suspect major is in transition. I've heard people use it to mean big or important in very unprescribed ways. I find it less likely that you'd say the the candidate is presidential to mean that they are a presidential candidate.
    – tdhsmith
    Sep 3, 2011 at 21:36
  • 2
    @kiamlaluna - That is not a predicative use, as major is still attributing problem. The whole noun phrase a major problem is serving as a predicate, but that is irrelevant to the adjective's function.
    – tdhsmith
    Sep 3, 2011 at 21:37

3 Answers 3


There are many kinds of non-predicative adjectives. A few examples:

  • former president
  • electrical engineer
  • alleged criminal
  • main reason

http://eecoppock.info/CoppockSemFest09.pdf shows you many kinds of examples. It is a good reference even if you choose to not read the technical bits.

  • 2
    The document highlights one of the most important ideas to the current theory on the matter: an adjective cannot serve as a predicate if it does not represent the conceptual "intersection" of it and the subject. For example, an electrical engineer implies it is an engineer, but does not imply it is electrical. (cf. the vicious dog is both dog and vicious) The rule isn't all there is to say on the matter though, and there are oddities, like thematic adjectives. The Spanish translator could mean the translator is Spanish, but normally he/she simply translates Spanish.
    – tdhsmith
    Sep 3, 2011 at 21:23

It is claimed that many adjectives cannot be used in a predicative position. Commonly, entire, utter, former, and potential are claimed to be of this type. Attributively, they look like this:

  • The entire class helped.
  • There was utter devastation.
  • He's a potential client.
  • He's a former client.

Personally, I have no problem using most these words in the predicative position. I'm a native English speaker, and they all seem fine to me. However, many English speakers have problems with:

  • I toured the areas affected by the hurricane. The devastation was utter.
  • He's so unlikely to spend any money, of all our possible future clients, I consider him the most potential.

To me at least, "the problem was major" is perfectly fine. If you asked me how anyone could find a problem with it, it likely wouldn't even occur to me that major is claimed to not be usable predicatively. But even I can't find any way to use entire predicatively.


I don't have the reputation to comment, but along the lines of Peter Shor's 'entire function' example, there are people who insist on saying 'the space has the Hausdorff property' rather than that 'the space is Hausdorff' should saying 'Hausdorff space' not suffice. I think the majority are happy with 'is Hausdorff', though.

  • I've never heard anybody say "this function has the entire property," and in fact that sounds to me as if it means something quite different. Aug 31, 2011 at 0:48
  • I have seen some sources go over the top with things like the space has the Hausdorff property but I generally thought it was because they thought the space is Hausdorff was too simple and lacked the gravity of a good proof. I couldn't think of any math terms that wouldn't fly in predicate, except for relative adjectives. Like I would never say the topology is discrete or the base is local (on the fence about the cover is open). This all reminds me of my old Abstract Algebra professor, who would have a rant whenever a student (all too often) said two groups were homomorphic.
    – tdhsmith
    Sep 4, 2011 at 17:31

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