Predicate (grammar)

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In traditional grammar, a predicate is one of the two main parts of a sentence, the other being the subject. The predicate is said to modify the subject. For the simple sentence "John is yellow" John acts as the subject, and is yellow acts as the predicate. The predicate is much like a verb phrase.

In linguistic semantics (notably truth-conditional semantics), a predicate is an expression that can be true of something; it expresses a relationship or property of an argument in a clause[1]. Thus, the expressions "is yellow" or "is like broccoli" are true of those things that are yellow or like broccoli, respectively. This notion is closely related to the notion of a predicate in formal logic, which includes more expressions than the former one, such as nouns and some kinds of adjectives.


Predicate in traditional English grammar

A predicate is one of the two main parts of a sentence (the other being the subject, which the predicate modifies).[2] The predicate must contain a verb, and the verb requires, permits, or precludes other sentence elements to complete the predicate. These elements are: objects (direct, indirect, prepositional), predicatives, adverbs:

She dances. (verb-only predicate)

Ben reads the book. (direct object)

Ben's mother, Felicity, gave me a present. (indirect object without a preposition)

She listened to the radio. (prepositional object)

They elected him president. (predicative / object complement)

She met him in the park. (adverbial)

She is in the park. (obligatory adverbial / adverbial complement)

The predicate provides information about the subject, such as what the subject is doing or what the subject is like.

The relation between a subject and its predicate is sometimes called a nexus.

A predicate nominal is a noun phrase that functions as the main predicate of a sentence, such as "George III is the king of England", the king of England being the predicate nominal. The subject and predicate nominal must be connected by a linking verb, also called a copula.

A predicate adjective is an adjective that functions as a predicate, such as "Jessica is attractive", attractive being the predicate adjective. The subject and predicate adjective must be connected by a linking verb, also called copula.

Classes of predicate

Carlson classes

After the work of Greg N. Carlson, predicates have been divided into the following sub-classes, which roughly pertain to how a predicate relates to its subject:

Stage-level predicates

A stage-level predicate ("s-l predicate" for short) is true of a temporal stage of its subject. For example, if John is "hungry", that typically lasts a certain amount of time, and not his entire lifespan.

S-l predicates can occur in a wide range of grammatical constructions and is probably the most versatile kind of predicate.

Individual-level predicates

An individual-level predicate ("i-l predicate") is true throughout the existence of an individual. For example, if John is "smart", this is a property of him, regardless which particular point in time we consider.

I-l predicates are more restricted than s-l ones. I-l predicates can't occur in presentational "there" sentences (a star in front of a sentence indicates that it is odd or ill-formed):

There are police available. ("available" is s-l)
*There are firemen altruistic. ("altruistic" is i-l)

S-l predicates allow modification by manner adverbs and other adverbial modifiers. I-l ones do not.

Tyrone spoke French loudly in the corridor. ("speak French" can be interpreted as s-l)
*Tyrone knew French loudly in the corridor. ("know French" can't be interpreted as s-l)

When an i-l predicate occurs in past tense, it gives rise to what is called a "lifetime effect": The subject must be assumed to be dead or otherwise gone out of existence.

John was available. (s-l ---> no lifetime effect)
John was altruistic. (i-l ---> lifetime effect.)

Kind-level predicates

A kind-level predicate ("k-l predicate") is true of a kind of thing, but cannot be applied to individual members of the kind. An example of this is the predicate "are widespread." One can't meaningfully say of a particular individual John that he is widespread. One may only say this of kinds, as in

Humans are widespread.

Certain types of noun phrase can't be the subject of a k-l predicate. We have just seen that a proper name can't be. Singular indefinite noun phrases are also banned from this environment:

*A cat is widespread. (compare: Nightmares are widespread.)

Collective vs. distributive predicates

Predicates may also be collective or distributive. Collective predicates require their subjects to be somehow plural, while distributive ones don't. An example of a collective predicate is "formed a line". This predicate can only stand in a nexus with a plural subject:

The students formed a line.
*The student formed a line.

Other examples of collective predicates include "meet in the woods", "surround the house", "gather in the hallway" and "carry the piano together". Note that the last one ("carry the piano together") can be made non-collective by removing the word "together". Quantifiers differ with respect to whether or not they can be the subject of a collective predicate. For example, quantifiers formed with "all the" can, while ones formed with "every" or "each" cannot.

All the students formed a line.
All the students gathered in the hallway.
All the students carried a piano together.
*Each student gathered in the hallway.
*Every student formed a line.

Other languages


The topic-comment structure of Japanese grammar yields very distinct predicates (as the comment). Indeed, Japanese adjectives and Japanese verbs behave rather similarly (for example, the negative form of a verb is an adjective), and can be understood as being two forms of predicates; predicate form is referred to as 終止形 (shūshikei, terminal form). Further, unlike in English, Japanese adjectives do not exist independently of predication, and the dictionary form is the predicate form – for example, 小さい (chiisai) is the predicate form of "small", and means "is small", not simply "small". Accordingly, while some textbooks translate Japanese adjectives as English adjectives (translating 小さい as "small"), other textbooks, such as Japanese: The Spoken Language, translate Japanese adjectives as English predicates (translating 小さい as "is small").


Similar considerations apply as in Japanese.

See also


  • 1. Kroeger, Paul (2005). Analyzing Grammar: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 53. ISBN 978-0-521-01653-7.
  • 2. The Merriam Webster Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster. 2004. p. 566.


  • Carlson, Greg N. (1977). "A unified analysis of the English bare plural". Linguistics and Philosophy 1 (3): 413–58.
  • Carlson, Gregory Norman (January 1, 1977). Reference to Kinds in English. New York: Garland. (Also distributed by Indiana University Linguistics Club and GLSA UMass/Amherst.)
  • Jaeger, Gerhard (2001). "Topic-comment structure and the contrast between stage level and individual level predicates". Journal of Semantics 18 (2): 83–126.
  • Kratzer, Angelika (1995). "Stage Level and Individual Level Predicates". In Carlson, G.; Pelletier, F.J. (eds.), The Generic Book. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Krifka, Manfred (1989). "Nominal Reference, Temporal Constitution and Quantification in Event Semantics". In R. Bartsch, J. van Benthem, P. von Emde Boas (eds.), Semantics and Contextual Expression. Dordrecht: Foris Publication.
  • Vendler, Zeno (1967). Linguistics in Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801404363.
  • Verkuyl, Henk (1972). On the Compositional Nature of the Aspects. Dordrecht: D. Reidel. ISBN 9027702276.
  • Verkuyl, Henk (1993). A Theory of Aspectuality. The Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521443628.
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