Note: This question has been cross posted to linguistics.se at Сoncept of an attribute used by Russian grammarians.

How to find attributes in these sentences,and not to confuse them with other members of the sentence?

  1. It was such a cruel thing (what kind of?) to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature.

To have happened to that gentle, helpless creature - an attribute?

  1. Dumb with amazement, I slumped into (whose?) my chair.

My - a simple attribute expressed by a possesive pronun(my)?

  1. The best thing for you to do is to leave at once.

For you to do – a complex attribute expressed by a for-to-infinitive construction?

  1. The fence (what kind of?) surrounding the garden is newly painted.

Surrounding the garden - a phrasal attribute expressed by a participial phrase?

Did I miss any attributes,or choose the wrong ones???

And what member of the sentence is "newly" in the last sentence??


The attribute is a secondary part of the sentence which characterizes the referent of its headword (the modified word) qualitatively, quantitatively or situationally. The most characteristic feature of the attribute is that it always refers to a noun or its substitute (a noun-pronoun or substantivised element).

Depending upon the degree of the closeness of the connection between attributes and their headwords the former are either non-detached (close) or detached (loose).

Non-detached attributes form one sense group with their headwords and are not set off from them by commas: A little smile of amusement came to Sir Arthur's lips. (Christie) The connection between detached attributes and their headwords is very loose.

Detached attributes form separate sense groups and are set off from them by commas, sometimes by dashes: Blind and almost senseless, he still heard the sharp slam of the door. (Cronin)

From the point of view of their structure almost all parts of the sentence are traditionally divided into simple and complex. But Prof. N.A.Kobrina and other authors of 'An English Grammar. Syntax' (M.,1986) divide them into simple, phrasal, complex and clausal.

THE SIMPLE ATTRIBUTE The simple attribute is expressed by:

1. Nouns:
a) in the common case (always in pre-position): The village water supply was two streets down the road. (Hemingway)

b) in the possessive (genitive) case (always in pre-position): John is Peter's brother (Longman).

2. Adjectives:

a) most often in pre-position: I am a strange old man. (Hemingway)

b) more rarely in postposition: But they were in a past so very distant. (Bragg)

3. Pronouns: a) adjective-pronouns (in pre-position): We've made some money. (Hemingway) His voice rose to a shriek. (Maugham)

b) noun-pronouns in the possessive (genitive) case: One should wash one's hair regularly. (Longman)

4. Statives: (very rarely) a) in pre-position: It’s nice to be such an aware person. (Longman)

b) in post-position: But it was a woman asleep. (Fowles)

5. Numerals: a) cardinal: I’ve invited one or two friends round this evening. (Longman)

b) ordinal: A second month passed... (Maugham).

6. Adverbs: in postposition: But you only made up your mind to go the day before, hence it was necessary to warn her. (Christie) Note: Some adverbs can be used in pre-position: The above photo, the then president (R.Quirk), but they are felt to be adjectivised to a certain extent.

7. Infinitives: always in post position: But Polly had no wish to travel. (Capote)

8. Gerunds: in pre-position: Her eyes rested on the writing table. (Woolf)

9. Participles: both I and II : a) in pre-position: Red Rocks is a struggling little place. (Wain) 'I have only one offering to give', he said, 'a broken heart'. (Voynich)

b) in post-position: There's a fine moon coming up. (Glasgow) Things seen are mightier than things heard. (Proverb)

lO. So-called nonce-words: It was an easy go-as-you-please existence. (Prichard)

Note: One should bear in mind that sometimes the function of a sentence part can be treated in a twofold way: as an attribute and as a prepositional object, for instance according to Prof. Barkhudarov L., “of the bridge” in the phrase 'the construction of the bridge' can be treated in both these ways. In the sentence 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that way', the gerundial phrase 'of taking' is commonly regarded as a prepositional object (see their 'English Grammar', M., 1964-p.273).


Like any other complex part of the sentence the complex attribute is expressed by predicative constructions with verbals (verbids), namely by:

l. For-to-Infinitive construction (for-complex): There is no need for us to argue about this. (Longman)

Note: Sometimes the function of the for-complex is ambiguous: it can be treated either as a complex attribute or as a complex adverbial of purpose:

He spread a rug for his wife to sit on. (Galsworthy), in which the for-complex may be treated in a twofold way: “He spread a rug on which his wife could sit” - complex attribute or 'He spread a rug so that his wife could sit on it'- a complex adverbial of purpose.

2. (Half)-gerundial constructions (always with a preposition): Dorin was wakened by the second of her husband’s splashing in the bathhouse. (Maugham) All along I have realized the significance of that pistol being removed from the scene of the crime. (Christie)

3. (Absolute) Participial constructions (with the preposition “with”): It was a large detached room, well-ventilated, with afire burning at one end.(Cronin) A wide river, with naked children splashing in the shallow, glided into sight and was gone again. (Mansfield)

4. Absolute (prepositional) constructions (with the preposition “with”): There were several bird-cages, with birds in them, ranged against the wall. (Greenwood) He ... gave up wine and cigars, drank a special kind of coffee with no coffee in it. (Galsworthy)
Absolute prepositional constructions are always detached.

  • I believe the terminology this user is using is based on something similar to this: usefulenglish.ru/grammar/word-order-in-statements and this robotlibrary.com/book/… Also probably more info in this google search Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 12:13
  • 3
    Without a definition of what you understand by attribute your question can't be answered. Attribute is a Latin grammar term and English grammar uses terms such as modifier. And I think attribute can mean various things in various English grammar terminologies.
    – rogermue
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 14:07
  • I don't understand. Does everybody agree with user8543? There is no opinions or a additions on this account. And what about word "newly"? I still don't know what member of the sentence it is.
    – user11312
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 18:50
  • 1
    If my opinion's worth anything, the best I can tell is that the chance that anybody here would already know the grammar you want to discuss is slim to none. It's fundamentally different from the English grammars I know, traditional or modern. It uses a different set of terminology, though there are some overlapping (such as we can tell that they also use nouns and sentences). However, attributive sounds like something with a specific meaning in this specific grammar. Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 19:05
  • 2
    Say, would it be helpful to migrate this question to linguistics.stackexchange.com? There, it might have a better chance of finding an answerer who knows the grammatical terminology that this question asks about.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 20:24

2 Answers 2


According to the Original Poster's source, an attribute is any type of Modifier, Complement or Determinative in a noun phase, excluding the articles the and a. (I don't know if this comment about articles is correct, but it's what I sense from the tenor of the grammar as described). In other words all the dependents in a noun phrase apart from articles are "attributes". I use the term NOUN PHRASE here to mean a phrase headed by a noun or pronoun.

In addition to the above, the term attribute also covers any adjective phrases functioning as predicative adjuncts (in other words adjective phrases describing an entity depicted by a noun phrase), and subjectless non-finite clauses functioning as adjuncts in the sentence, when the subject is understood as the subject of the main clause. It does NOT include predicative complements.

Therefore, in order to find the 'attributes' in a sentence find the noun phrases. Everything that isn't the head noun or an article, is an "attribute". There are many ways to help identify the extent of a noun phrase. One of them is to substitute it with a pronoun. Everything that disappears is almost definitely part of that noun phrase. Everything that isn't the head noun or an article is an 'attribute'. (You'll then need to add any sentence adjuncts which describe any noun phrase entities).

  • I don't like that grumpy old man with the hat on who always swears at me.
  • I don't like him.

In this case we can see that "him" has replaced "that grumpy old man with the hat on who always swears at me". The head noun in the noun phrase is man. This means that the following items are attributes:

  • that
  • grumpy
  • old
  • with the hat on
  • who always swears at me

Another way to identify the extent of a noun phrase is this: if it's a noun phrase functioning as subject, turn the sentence into a question and everything that inverts with the auxiliary verb is part of that noun phrase:

  • That grumpy old man with the hat on who always swears at me is tiresome.
  • Is that grumpy old man with the hat on who always swears at me tiresome?

Here we see the noun phrase inverting with "is", indicating again that "*That grumpy old man with the hat on who always swears at me *" is all one noun phrase.

  1. It was such a cruel thing to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature.

There are three noun phrases in this sentence. Firstly there is the one word noun phrase "it". As this word has no dependents it has no 'attributes'. Secondly, there is:

  • such a cruel thing to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature.

The attributes here are the modifier of the noun phrase such, the modifier of the nominal cruel and the infinitival clause "to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature". However, it's possible, if not probable, that the infinitival clause here is a dependent of "cruel". In this case we may wish to cite "cruel to have happened" as a single attribute. Now, within that infinitival clause there is another noun phrase:

  • that gentle, helpless creature

Within this phrase we can see the determiner "that" and the adjectives "gentle" and "helpless" which are all attributes.

  1. Dumb with amazement, I slumped into my chair

Again we see a one-word noun phrase, "I". The other noun phrase here is "my chair". The head noun here is "chair", so the word "my" must be an 'attribute'. In this sentence, however, we also have the predicative adjunct, the adjective phrase, "Dumb with amazement", which describes the subject of the main clause.

  1. The best thing for you to do is to leave at once.

There is one big noun phrase here, "The best thing for you to do". The head word is "thing". The word "the" is an article and so though it's a dependent, it doesn't count as an attribute (if I have understood the OP's grammar source correctly). This means that the attributes are the adjective best and the post-modifying infinitival clause, "for you to do". Again, it could be argued that best for you to do is one attribute. However, I doubt it in this case. We could easily have "the thing for you to do" without the word "best". Within this clause, there's a one word noun phrase that we don't need to worry about.

  1. The fence surrounding the garden is newly painted.

Here we can see the noun phrase "The fence surrounding the garden" in subject position (if we turn the sentence into a question we get "Is the fence surrounding the garden newly painted?"). The article the does not count here. The head noun is "fence". This is post-modified by the gerund participle phrase "surrounding the garden", which is therefore an attribute. Within this there is a noun phrase functioning as direct object of the verb "surrounding", namely "the garden". However, this consists just of the head noun "garden" and the article "the". Assuming that articles don't count as attributes, there are no attributes in this noun phrase.

As a general guide to finding attributes, completely disregard the semantics as much as possible and look at the STRUCTURE of the sentence. If it's part of a noun phrase and not the head noun, then it's an attribute (unless it is an article). If it's a sentence adjunct (specifically an adjective phrase or subjectless non-finite clause) describing one of the noun phrases, it's also an attribute.

Hope this is helpful!

Note: The book which the Original Poster refers to does not explicitly state whether or not articles should be considered attributes. In one of the authors examples, an article have been highlighted as an attribute, in the others they have been excluded. I assume that the sole occurrence was a typo, but I can't be sure. Articles are not mentioned in the author's list of types of attribute.

  • Quite thorough and clear! +1 Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 5:52
  • But might as well add that "newly" is an adverbial modifier to the predicate adjective "painted". Or whatever the correct terminology is for that function. Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 6:02

An attribute is a property of someone or thing - it is essentially an adjective. I'll highlight the attributes in your sentences:

It was such a cruel thing to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature.

Gentle and helpless are attributes of the creature. You could also argue that 'cruel' is an attribute of 'thing'.

Dumb with amazement, I slumped into my chair.

The fence surrounding the garden is newly painted.

You could also argue that 'surrounding the garden' is an attribute of the fence.

  • And what about possessive pronoun "my" in the second sentence?It's not an attibute?
    – user11312
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 14:07
  • Yes, I guess it's an attribute of the chair.
    – user8543
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 14:08
  • It refers to 'I'.
    – user8543
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 14:12
  • 1
    I don't understand why "painted" is an attribute.
    – user11312
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 18:22
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    @Study.English.Well In everyday English, "attribute" has an extremely broad meaning. It means any property of something else, just as user8543 said. Other synonyms are: quality, aspect, characteristic. "Having been painted" is thus an attribute of a painted fence. Other attributes of a fence: its shape, its age, its color, its monetary value, its beauty, its material, its hardness, how good it is at preventing cows from passing it. You are asking about "attribute" in a highly specialized, esoteric sense, not to be confused with its everyday meaning.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 15:31

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