At present l am reviewing classification of adjectives: attributives and predicatives. I want to know who coined them, and when grammarians began using them. By the way, l have searched in vain for their origin.


James Harris introduced the attributive into English in a grammatical sense, and the precise phrases "attributive adjective" and "predicative adjective" emerge in 19th century grammars that study other languages.

Before Harris, the idea of a predicate, an attribute, or an adjective would have been understood in English, but these terms weren't used to modify "adjective" in a phrase. For instance, Henry Curson (1702) features both a grammar and a logic in his The theory of sciences illustrated. Here is a condensed treatment of both predicate and attribute:

From which Definition [of proposition] it appears (saith Blome) that to every Proposition two forms at least are required; the one of which something is affirmed or denyed, which Term is called Subject, the other which is said or denyed of another, which term is called the Attribute, as when it is said God is existing, God is the Subject, and Existing the Predicate.

"Existing" in "God is existing" is treated at once as an attribute and a predicate. They're referring to two distinct qualities that can overlap: a predicate follows a subject; an attribute is "said or denied of another." They had not yet come to distinguish two kinds of adjectives.

In 1751 James Harris wrote Hermes: or, a philosophical inquiry concerning language and universal grammar. He was interested in creating a universal language for describing grammar. He adapted the term attributive to refer to a word that expresses a quality of a substance:

And thus all things whatsoever being either Substances or Attributes, it follows of course that all Words, which are significant as Principals, must needs be significant of either the one or the other. If they are significant of Substances, they are call'd Substantives; if of Attributes they are call'd Attributives. So that all Words whatever, significant as Principals, are either Substantives or Attributes. (30)

Harris didn't restrict this usage to a single part of speech, as this list of example attributes shows:

Thus to think is the attribute of a Man; to be white, of a Swan; to fly of an Eagle; to be four-footed, of a Horse. (29)

Attributes are often verbs (to think, to fly). They are also often adjectives (white, four-footed). Like a lot of early grammarians, Harris is crossing freely between philosophy (defining the substance or attributes of things) and language. He is also mixing the categories we have come to know: the adjectives he calls "attributive" are what we would call predicative today ("the horse is four-footed"). The usage solidifies around adjectives over the next 50 years: Anselm Bayly (1756) is comfortable using it to refer primarily to verbs and thence to adjectives. Meanwhile, Alexander Murray (1787) refers to attributive pronouns, or pronouns used to point out the "property, locality, or duration of things" (24).

Meanwhile, predicative does not appear in English grammars in the 18th century, and predicate refers to what we mean by it, without a specific phrase like "predicative adjective."

By the mid-19th century attributive and predicative emerge as two kinds of adjectives in roughly its current usage. For instance, A Grammar of the German Language by Karl Becker (1830) distinguishes the attributive from the predicative adjective based on position and other qualities. Other grammars in English (1842 for Hebrew, 1848 for Greek), also incorporate this phrase. By 1869 they are being used in English grammar books for students.

The primary limitation of this post is that it relies heavily on the Eighteenth Century Collections Online and Google Books corpuses, which may omit pertinent materials that complicate this narrative. In particular, I may not be getting a comprehensive sample of early 19th century grammar guides in English. It is likely that "predicative adjective" and "attributive adjective" were used to refer to English grammar between 1800 and 1869. That said, I feel pretty confident about saying that English grammar developed these concepts after James Harris and other grammarians and logicians used the term "attributive" to refer to adjectives and other parts of speech that describe the quality of a noun. As sometimes happened, philosophical language found new usage in English grammar.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 1
    That's what l was looking for. I'm really grateful for your help. – Mido Mido Jan 16 '19 at 9:28
  • 1
    Note that considering the adjective as a part of speech was a relatively recent invention in the 18th century. Classical Latin grammar considered adjectives to be just another kind of noun lacking implicit gender; it could be used as a noun and took the same endings as a noun, so it was a noun. It wasn't till the middle ages (sometime) that "participle" slipped off the approved list and "adjective" replaced it. – John Lawler Sep 4 '19 at 18:21

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.