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Attributive vs. Predicate Adjectives and the Ancient Greek Definite Article

Ancient Greek

Attributive vs. Predicate Adjectives and the Ancient Greek Definite Article

Early Ancient Greek alphabet on pottery National Archaeological Museum of Athens


by Todd Clary, Ph.D.

Χαῖρε! and welcome to this entry of the Carmenta Online Ancient Greek Blog.


Today I want to build on my last posting on the definite article in Ancient Greek, by talking further about said article and the role it plays in determining the attributive and predicate position of Greek adjectives.


To start with, just to be sure we all understand the difference between an adjective used as an attribute and one used as a predicate, let’s briefly look at a few English sentences. Keep in mind that every sentence breaks down roughly into a subject and a predicate. For clarification of this point you may want to check out Magister Andrew’s blog posting on predicate adjectives in English. It will make what I am about to say about Ancient Greek much more clear.


Now, consider these three sentences and the use of the adjective ‘good’ in them:


1) I see the good woman.

2) The good woman sees me.

3) The woman is good.


In sentence 1, the subject is simply ‘I’ and the predicate is ‘see the good woman’. The adjective ‘good’ is added matter-of-factly and to some degree assumed, as one of the qualities, or attributes of the woman I see. Sentence 2 shows that the adjective can also be an attribute of the subject; here ‘The good woman’ is the subject clause and ‘sees me’ is the predicate. In sentence 3, however, we see a marked difference in the use of the adjective. ‘The woman’ is the subject and ‘is good’ is the predicate. The main point of this sentence is to assert the woman’s quality as good, and therefore goodness has now become the focus of the predicate.


From these examples we see that, in English, word ordering and positioning within the sentence determine whether an adjective is functioning as an attribute or predicate. Attributive adjectives come immediately before the nouns they modify, while predicate adjectives follow a predicating verb separating them from the noun they modify, or reference. While the verb ‘to be’ is the most common predicating verb, it is not the only one. For example, in the following sentence ‘appears’ is the predicating verb.


1) The woman only appears good.


Now, since Ancient Greek is a heavily inflected language and English is overwhelmingly an analytical language, it is predictable enough that the two languages’ methods of determining whether an adjective functions as an attributive or predicate are quite different. The way that Ancient Greek distinguishes attributive and predicate adjectives is by the position of the definite article in relation to the adjective. The basic rule can be stated like this:


If the definite article comes immediately before the adjective, then the adjective is attributive, but if there is no definite article immediately before the adjective, it is in predicate position.

Ancient Greek writing carved in

In general, the position of the definite article determines whether an adjective is in attributive or predicate position. This leaves Greek with several different ways of expressing the same idea. For instance, there are three different ways to present the adjective as an attribute (N.B., English words in parentheses do not appear in the Greek, but are necessary for the sentences to be grammatical in English):

1)         ὁράω τὴν ἀγαθὴν γυνήν

     horaô tēn agathēn gynēn

                     I see the good woman.


2)         ὁράω τὴν γυνήν τὴν ἀγαθήν

     horaô tēn gynēn tēn agathēn

                     I see the woman, the good (one).


3)         ὁράω γυνήν τὴν ἀγαθήν

     horaô gynēn tēn agathēn

                     I see (the) woman, the good (one)


There is no difference in meaning in these three sentences, though most Greek grammars would say that there is a difference in emphasis, with sentence 1 being unemphatic and 2 & 3 slightly more emphatic.


As far as predicate adjectives go, Ancient Greek had two different ways to present them:


1)           ἡ γυνὴ ἀγαθή

                      hē gynē agathē

                      The woman (is) good.

2)           ἀγαθὴ ἡ γυνή

      agathē hē gynē

                      good (is) the woman.


In both of these sentences I have had to supply the appropriate form of the verb ‘to be’ in my English translation, but note that in the Greek there is no verb at all. Verbless utterances such as these are considered complete sentences in Ancient Greek, and are called nominal sentences in Greek grammars. The fact of the matter is that they would not have given an Ancient Greek speaker any trouble at all, even though English requires a predicating verb. If, on the other hand, a Greek speaker wanted to express that the predication they were talking about involved more than just the verb ‘to be’, they would then supply the desired verb:


1)                 φαίνεται ἡ γυνὴ ἀγαθή

    phainetai hē gynē agathē

    The woman seems good.


2)              φαίνεται ἀγαθὴ ἡ γυνή

  phainetai agathē hē gynē

                         The woman seems good.


Thank you for reading this edition of the Carmenta Ancient Greek Blog.


todd clary
Dr. Todd Clary, a specialist in the Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages, holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Indo-European Linguistics from Cornell University, where he now works as a professor in the Classics Department. He has taught “Homeric Philology”, “Latin Comparative Grammar”, “Archaic Latin and the Italic Dialects”, as well as all levels of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Dr. Clary currently teaches the “Latin IV” and “Latin VI” classes and tutors Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit for the Carmenta Online Latin School.

Click here to see Dr. Clary’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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