Predicate (grammar)

In traditional grammar, a predicate is one of the two main parts of a sentence (the other being the subject, which the predicate modifies). In current linguistic semantics, a predicate is an expression that can be "true of" something. Thus, the expressions "is yellow" or "like broccoli" are true of those things that are squash or strong tasting, respectively. The latter notion is closely related to the notion of a predicate in formal logic, and includes more expressions than the former one, like, for example, nouns and some kinds of adjectives.

Predicate in traditional English grammar

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).cite book |title=The Merriam Webster Dictionary |year=2004 |publisher=Merriam-Webster |location=Springfield, Massachusettes |isbn=13 |pages=566 Fact|date=January 2008 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 (aka predicate complements: subject complements and object complements) and adverbials (either obligatory or adjuncts). In the following examples, the predicate is underlined.

"She dances." (verb only predicate)

"John reads the book". (direct object)

"John'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 "Jenny 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:

tage-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.

: John spoke French loudly in the corridor. ("speak French" can be interpreted as s-l): *John 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 ightarrow no lifetime effect): John was altruistic. (i-l ightarrow 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 : *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.

Vendler classes

The philosopher Zeno Vendler came up with an aspectual classification of verbs, roughly having to do with how they present the temporal span of the events they refer to. After the work of the Dutch semanticist Henk Verkuyl, it has been widely acknowledged that the Vendler classes pertain to predicates and not to verbs. Whether or not the Vendler classes in their original form are correct is a hotly disputed topic within the semantic theory of aspect and telicity. There is a wide consensus that something like them is relevant, however. For some discussion see the references below. Vendler's classes are as follows.


A predicate is a "state" if it presents an event as a static state of affairs, i.e. an event where nothing changes. Stative predicates present events as "unbounded" in time. Put differently, a sentence like "John is ill" says nothing in particular about the temporal extent of the state he's in. Examples of stative predicates are "be ill", "sleep soundly", "know French". States typically can't occur in the progressive in English:: *John is being ill.: *John is knowing French.They can occur with time-span adverbials like "for an hour", but not with "time-frame adverbials" like "in an hour".: John was ill for an hour/*in an hour.


Activities are like states in presenting events as "unbounded" in time, but they differ from states in involving some kind of change. Examples of activity predicates include "run in the park", "snore loudly", "fall through the air", etc.

Activities can occur in the progressive.: John is snoring loudly.: John is falling through the air.They can occur with time-span adverbials, but not time-frame adverbials:: John snored for an hour/*in an hour.


Accomplishment predicates also involve change, but they present the events they refer to as "bounded" in time. They can be decomposed into two endpoints (the beginning and the culmination of the event) and a process part. Examples of accomplishment predicates are "build a house", "run to the store".

Accomplishments can occur in the progressive. They do not occur with time-span adverbials, but do occur with time-frame adverbials.: John is running to the store: John ran to the store in an hour/*for an hour.


Achievement predicates are like accomplishments lacking a process part. They denote punctual change. Examples of achievement predicates are "reach the top", "win the race", "find his glasses".


*Carlson, Greg N. 1977. A unified analysis of the English bare plural. Linguistics and Philosophy,1:3, 413-458.
*Carlson, Greg N. 1980. Reference to Kinds in English. New York: Garland Publishing. (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), pp 83-126
*Kratzer, Angelika. 1995. Stage Level and Individual Level Predicates," in G. Carlson &F.J. Pelletier (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. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
*Verkuyl, Henk. 1972. On the Compositional Nature of the Aspects. Foundations of Language Supplement Series, nr. 15. Dordrecht. 185 pages.
*Verkuyl, Henk. 1993. A Theory of Aspectuality. The Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure.. CSIL 64. Cambridge University Press.

ee also

* Predicative (adjectival or nominal)
* Subject complement
* Sentence (linguistics)
* Clause
* Inflectional phrase
* Phrase

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