A King, whose only son was fond of martial exercises, had a dream in which he was warned that his son would be killed by a lion. Afraid the dream should prove true, he built for his son a pleasant palace and decorated its walls for his amusement with all kinds of life-sized animals, among which was the picture of a lion.

Source: Aesop's Fables

"Afraid" is an adjective in all the dictionaries. And in Oxford, it is clearly indicated "not before noun". Then why can it be used this way in the above sentence?

  • afraid + the dream should prove true?
    – dennylv
    Dec 2, 2014 at 7:08

3 Answers 3


Be careful when interpreting rules you find in dictionaries (or from the mouths of teachers).

In English, most adjectives can be places immediately in front of the noun they modify:

A large house.
A good book.
A red car.

However, with some adjectives this is not done, so the following is wrong:

*An afraid king.

This is what your dictionary tells you. It does not say that afraid can never appear before any noun in any situation! Any time you think you find such a broad, absolute rule, be very, very careful. It is probably an incorrect interpretation!

In your sentence, it is the king that is afraid, not the dream. To be more precise, the adjective afraid is part of an attributive phrase (afraid the dream should prove true), that modifies he (and he refers to the king).

It is interesting to note that afraid actually does appear before what it modifies in the sentence! The comma after true is necessary in this case, in order to separate afraid from he. This sentence would be considered wrong:

*Afraid he built a castle.

We do need the comma:

Afraid, he built a castle.

  • 2
    And then there's always this version: "I'm afraid he built a castle." (But, in that case, afraid modifies "I", not "he", so that one's fine as-is.)
    – J.R.
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:10
  • +1 you forgot to add on ELL though, and far more accurately on the top voted answers on ELU! :D Dec 2, 2014 at 19:57
  • Attributive afraid doesn't sound so horrible to me although it is clearly listed as postpositive in multiple references. Is it just me?
    – shawnt00
    Dec 5, 2014 at 18:09
  • @shawnt00 Nobody disputes that it's fine as attributive - there just was some confusion as to whether post-positive meant no noun at all could follow it. So, no, I think it;s not just you, there seems to be quote a broad consensus :)
    – oerkelens
    Dec 5, 2014 at 19:16
  • @oerkelens, I'm referring to the part where you said an afraid king would be wrong.
    – shawnt00
    Dec 8, 2014 at 16:07

In your sentence the noun that the adjective afraid modifies is king which (the noun) is omitted here.

Your sentence can be read this way:

The king, afraid that the dream should prove true…

So it is not the dream that is afraid.

Note that there is an implied "that" in the original sentence.

  • 1
    The implied "that" is the key point. The sentence should have read, "Afraid that the dream should prove true…" Modern English speakers often leave out the word "that", which sometimes leads to confusion. Dec 2, 2014 at 14:47
  • It could have read "Afraid that..." but it scans better without "that" . Dec 2, 2014 at 17:16
  • More accurately, Afraid modifies he. Dec 2, 2014 at 19:53

The previous answers are correct.

I'd also point out that your example comes from a story. In literature (both prose and poetry), we often take "poetic license" and bend or break the rules of grammar. We do this because it sounds better for some reason. In poetry/song lyrics, we usually use poetic license to fit a rhythm or a rhyme. Although prose doesn't usually concern itself with rhyme, it does have rhythm and flow. The author (or the editor) probably thought the story sounded better with the suspect* grammar.

Argh! Y'all are really keeping me on my toes! I can't comment yet, so I'm editing my answer to reply to the comments.

The question poster (poser?) seems to suspect the grammar from the story is incorrect.

  • 2
    Except, in this case, the grammar is NOT incorrect!
    – J.R.
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:11
  • 1
    Can you give an example where in literature the grammar of English is broken or bent?
    – user6951
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:33
  • 3
    This answer implies that there is something "suspect" about the grammar in the sentence. Can you please point that out? As it stands, this answer just creates extra ground for doubting the grammaticality of a perfectly fine English sentence, leading to unnecessary confusion and lending credibility to nonsensical interpretations of basic grammar.
    – oerkelens
    Dec 2, 2014 at 12:03
  • The question does seem to suspect the grammar is incorrect, but rather than explaining that "incorrect grammar" is not an issue, I think the main point is that this grammar is not incorrect by any standard. Don't take it personally, your efforts are appreciated!
    – oerkelens
    Dec 2, 2014 at 21:53

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