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 yellow or like broccoli, respectively. The latter
notion is closely related to the notion of a predicate
logic, and includes more expressions than the former
one, like, for example, nouns
and some kinds of adjectives.
Predicate in traditional English
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).
Merriam Webster Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusettes:
Merriam-Webster, 566. ISBN 13.
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
John's mother, Felicity, gave me a present.
(indirect object without a preposition)
She listened to the radio.
They elected him president.
(predicative /object complement)
She met him in the park.
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
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
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:
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
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
no lifetime effect)
- John was altruistic. (i-l
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
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.
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
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
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
- *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",
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
Zeno. 1967. Linguistics in Philosophy. Cornell University
- 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.