Predicative and Attributive Adjectives

NOTE: A MORE UP-TO-DATE discussion of word order in Greek Noun Phrase is HERE. Also, there are a number of mistakes in this present post, which need to be corrected – that will hopefully happen in the next couple weeks. PLEASE REFER TO THE POST LINKED TO ABOVE.

Yesterday in a comment, our dear friend Lingamish said, “This whole thing with attributive adjectives etc. has always seemed contrived. If you could shed light on it through grammatical analysis I’d be grateful.”

So that is what I’m going to attempt to do.

But first I’m going to have to give a bit of a summary of Micheal Palmer’s work in the structure of the Greek Noun Phrase. He argued that Greek has an N-Bar, that is a constituent that exists between the phrase level and the word level. This claim was based on the distribution of two words: 1) the Greek article “ὀ” and 2) the demonstrative pronoun, “οὐτος” (There are several other arguments, but this one will do).

Basically, he argued that if there are only two levels – the word level and the phrase level there is no reason, structurally speaking, why we could not have a Noun Phrase such as the following:


But this distribution of the article (D = Determiner) and the demonstrative does not occur in the New Testament.

Rather what we find is the following distribution:


On the basis of the distribution of the demonstrative – that it does not occur between the article and the noun while sharing the same case – Palmer concluded that the demonstrative functions at a different level than the article. He proposed the following structure:


By this analysis, the article is Determiner One and the demonstrative is Determiner Two. By this analysis according to Palmer, D2 never has an N-Bar as a sister and the D1 never has an NP as a sister. Thus Phrase Structure Rules for these two types of Determiners would be:

NP = (D1) N-Bar
NP = (D2) NP

If Palmer is correct (and I believe he is), then this also explains why we find occurrences of the article occurring without a noun introducing a prepositional phrase, such as, “τὰ ἐπὶ τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.” There are 484 instances of this construction in the NT (For a discussion of where I got this number See HERE). Since the N-Bar is essentially understood as equivocal to a Noun in that it satisfies the requirement of a Noun Phrase to have a head noun, this phrase (from Ephesians 1.10) would look like this:


Now that I’ve given a thoroughly inadequate explanation of the N-Bar in Koine Greek, I can explain the difference between the predicate and attributive adjectives.

The attributive position for the adjective is occurs in a few different positions: “ὁ ἀγαθὸς βασιλεύς,” “ὁ βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός,” and “βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός” – this last position is rare. Essentially when the adjective is in one of these three positions, it is contained within the Noun Phrase itself. Structurally then, these would look like:


This is why we translate these three structures in English with the phrase, “The good king.”

In contrast, the predicative adjective functions outside the Noun Phrase – at the clause level. The two positions for it are: “ἀγαθὸς ὁ βασιλεύς” and “ὁ βασιλεὺς ἀγαθός.” Since in both these positions, the adjective is not in the same phrase as the noun, structurally, they would look like:


As you can see, in both these instances, the adjective is in a separate phrase than the noun. Again, the article is key. The article marks limits of the Noun Phrase, which is why we translate such a structure as, “The king is good.” If a word occurs outside the article or does not have an article of its own such as in attributive positions #2 & #3, it cannot be attributive, it must be a predicative.

It should be noted that Greek clauses do not necessarily require a copula to join equative, qualitative, and locative clauses (i.e. “Steve is a man” is equative, “The king is good.” is qualitative, and “Mike is from Chicago.” is locative).

Of course as many grammars have noted, when we find occurrences of “ἀγαθὸς βασιλεύς,” or “βασιλεὺς ἀγαθός,” the words then become ambiguous regarding which structure we have. At that point, the greater context must come into play in making a decision. At the same time though, such semantic ambiguity is actually more evidence that the two structures are distinct.

Anyway, if you lasted this long, Lingamish, I hope that helped.

13 thoughts on “Predicative and Attributive Adjectives

Add yours

  1. You’re quite a good writer. And I love your trees with the arch instead of a teepee (much less threatening).

    A dim light is breaking through the fog. I’ll read this again tomorrow morning when I’m high on caffeine.

  2. Thanks, I like the arch more too. Actually, using the teepees simply doesn’t work with the program I use, at least, not very well.

    To be honest, I didn’t fully understand the difference myself until I began putting these diagrams together a few weeks ago.

  3. This whiffs of North Dakota. I got to teach tree diagrams as a TA at ORSIL back in the 90’s and have been scarred ever since. I’m trying to keep an open mind…

    Are there really 484? Amazing.

    This is why we translate these three structures in English with the phrase, “The good king.”

    Sure, translate it any way you like, but what is the difference? What is triggering the different attributive forms? And why is ὁ ἀγαθός ὁ βασιλεὺς not possible?

    And don’t tell me it’s stylistic. That’s cheating.

    I have to say GGBB is most unsatisfactory talking about emphasis and “a sort of climax.” (306)

    I’m channeling Levinsohn here. 😉

  4. I’ve been wondering about some of these same questions. If I can find a native speaker, I’ll ask him about the difference between the attributive forms. My best guess that ὁ ἀγαθός ὁ βασιλεὺς isn’t an option because the adjective cannot come before the article of the noun, that the article has to be first.

    Personally, I’d be inclined to think the opposite of Wallace. I have no evidence for this conclusion, but I would expect ὁ βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός to be the more marked expression because of the repetition of the article.

    …hmmm…I need to sit down and actually finish reading Levinsohn…

  5. Never trust a native speaker. They’re notoriously bad at understanding the “why” of their own language.

    I wept when I finished Levinsohn because there were no more lands to conquer.

  6. I would guess that ὁ ἀγαθὸς ὁ βασιλεύς means “the good man is the king”. In that case I suppose ὁ βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός is ambiguous and could mean “the king is the good man”.

  7. I did some searching. The pattern ὁ ἀγαθὸς ὁ βασιλεύς (i.e. article adjective article noun agreeing in case, number, & gender) does not occur in the New Testament.

    I found a few hits in Philo: Allegorical Interpretation, II 50 & 52; On Dreams 2.168; and Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 76. There were also a few false hits too – nothing in the LXX, or the Apostolic Fathers.

    They are generally treated as in apposition: τὸν ἀγαθόν τὸν οὐρανόν “the good things – that is the heavens.

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