What is a predicative adjective?
A predicative adjective (or simply “predicate adjective”) is used in the predicate of a clause to describe either the subject of the clause or the direct object of a certain kind of verb.
Predicative adjectives as subject complements
Predicative adjectives that describe the subject of the clause almost always follow a linking verb. In such cases, they are known as subject complements. For example:
- “You are nice.”
- “He is old.”
Here, “nice” describes the subject “you,” while “old” describes the subject “he.”
Note that adjectives appearing immediately before the noun they are describing are known as attributive adjectives. For example:
- “The old man seems nice.”
“Old” is an attributive adjective that describes the subject, “man.” “Nice” also describes “man,” but it is a predicative adjective because it follows the sense verb “seems.”
Certain linking verbs are used to indicate perceptions, opinions, or bodily sensations. They are known as verbs of the senses, or “sense verbs” for short. Those verbs are as follows:
Sense verbs merely relate the means by which the speaker has experienced such a sensation relating to the subject. When we use them like this, they are functioning as linking verbs (rather than action verbs) and we pair them with predicative adjectives to describe the subject of the clause. Because they are necessary to complete the meaning of the sense verb, these adjectives are known as subject complements—the same as when they follow the linking verb be.
- “I feel terrible today.” (It is I who feels terrible.)
- “You sound tired.” (I think you are tired from the sound of your voice.)
- “You look fabulous today.” (It is you who has a fabulous appearance.)
- “He doesn’t look very happy.” (My eyes tell me that he is unhappy. Note that the adverb “very” is modifying the adjective “happy,” not the verb “look.”)
- “This doesn’t feel right.” (I sense that this thing, situation, etc., is not right—i.e., as it should be.)
- “The car appears OK, but I’ll have to drive it to be sure.” (From what I can see, the car looks like it’s OK—i.e., in good condition.)
- “That smells nice.” (That thing has a nice aroma.)
- “This milk tastes funny*.” (The milk has an odd or unpleasant taste.)
*The adjective “funny” has two meanings. It can describe something humorous, or something that is strange, unpleasant, dubious, or not as it should be. It carries the latter meaning in the above example.
If any of the above verbs were used as action verbs, they could no longer be followed by adjectives—you could only pair them with adverbs. For example:
- “I felt gently around the table in the dark.” (Describes the action of feeling with one’s hand.)
- “He looked quickly to the right.” (Describes the action of looking in a certain direction.)
- “The car appeared out of nowhere.” (Describes the action of coming into sight, using a prepositional phrase as an adverb.)
- “Yes, you heard right!” (Right in this case is an adverb meaning “accurately or correctly.”)
Sources of confusion – Good vs. Well
A common stumbling block for both native speakers and learners of English is the correct usage of good versus well.
In most instances, good is an attributive adjective directly describing a noun, while well is an adverb describing a verb, adjective, or other adverb. For example:
- “He is a good driver.”
- “She writes well.”
We cannot use good and well interchangeably in these instances, and we can see immediately that the following would be incorrect:
- “He is a well driver.”
- “She writes good.”
However, well can also function as a predicative adjective, usually meaning “healthy” or “not ill.” We use it in this way after linking verbs such as be and get, or the sense verbs above:
- “Jenny looks well lately.”
- “Get well soon!”
In these examples, well does not describe the verbs, but rather the subjects of the sentences (which is implied in the second example).
Good can be used as a predicative adjective as well, meaning “of a high or satisfactory quality.” This can be used after linking and sense verbs to talk about an opinion of something, an emotional state, or general well-being (as opposed to physical health, specifically). For example:
- “The movie was good.” (An opinion of the quality of the movie.)
- “I’m feeling good about my chances!” (Describing one’s emotional state.)
- “Janet looks good lately.” (An opinion about Janet’s appearance, rather than her health.)
- A: “How are you, Bob?”
- B: “I am good, thanks!” (A statement of general well-being, as opposed to physical health.)
The last example is perfectly correct, and it is very frequently used as a stock response to the question “How are you?” You could also say “I’m well,” and no one is likely to take issue with it. However, if someone asks how you are after, for instance, an illness or injury, it would be better to respond with “I’m well.”
If saying “I’m good” still does not sound quite right to you, you could also say “I am doing well,” in which case well is used adverbially once more.
Predicative adjectives as object complements
Predicative adjectives can also describe the direct object of a specific kind of verb, known as a factitive verb.
Factitive verbs indicate a change in the condition or state of a person, place, or thing (the direct object of the verb), and the predicative adjective describes the result of that change. In this case, such adjectives function as object complements, and they almost always come immediately after the noun or pronoun they describe.
- “They painted the door red.”
- “All that training made me stronger.”
- “The elders deemed the girl worthy.”
The predicative adjectives here are describing (complementing) the direct objects of the verbs, rather than the subjects of the sentences. “Red” describes the noun “door” (not the subject, “they”), “stronger” describes the pronoun “me” (not the subject, “training”), and “worthy” describes the noun “girl” (not the subject, “elders”), all as a result of the changes indicated by their respective factitive verbs.
Attributive adjectives describing direct objects
It’s important not to confuse predicative adjectives functioning as object complements with attributive adjectives that modify direct objects of “normal” (i.e., non-factitive) verbs. Let’s compare the following two sentences to see the difference more clearly:
- “My daughter made this beautiful card.”
- “My daughter made this card beautiful.”
At first glance, they seem to be very nearly the same. They both have the same subject, “daughter,” they both have the word “made” as the verb, and both use “beautiful” to describe “card.” However, in the first sentence, “beautiful” is simply describing the kind of card the daughter created. In the second sentence, though, the verb “made” is describing a process of change, whereby the daughter took an existing card and did something to change its state into being beautiful. The difference is subtle, but it is important if we want to clearly express our meaning.
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