The attribute. Ways of expressing attributes


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The attribute is a secondary part of the sentence which characterizes person or non-person expressed by the headword either qualitatively, quantitatively, or from the point of view of situation. Attributes may refer to nouns and other words of nominal nature, such as pronouns gerunds and substitute words, as in...



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The attribute

§ 84. The attribute is a secondary part of the sentence which characterizes person or non-person expressed by the headword either qualitatively, quantitatively, or from the point of view of situation. Attributes may refer to nouns and other words of nominal nature, such as pronouns gerunds and substitute words, as in:

It was a letter from his devoted friend.

I mentioned it to him when he was his usual self.

One day I put the picture up again, the lifesize one.

An attribute forms a nominal phrase with its headword.

Ways of expressing attributes

§ 85. An attribute may be expressed by different parts of speech:

1. By (a) adjectives or (b) adjectival phrases, which characterize the person or non-person qualitatively or express the speaker’s attitude.

a) The sand glittered like fine white sugar in the sun.

I've never seen a better place.

There is nothing unusual about the letter.

Some composite adjectives may be derived from other parts of speech by means of the participle-forming suffix -ed, as in:

It was a low-ceilinged L-shaped room.

They sat on the pine-needled sand.

Some adjectives have developed from former participles II, as in:

Martin lived with his widowed mother.

He looked for his long-lost friend everywhere.

b) In any case it gave no clue to the thought then uppermost in Hercule Poirot's mind.

He stood and raged within himself with sour despair, unable to move or say a word.

2. By pronouns or pronominal phrases, which help to identify or define persons or non-persons.

The woman by no change of face showed that his words meant anything to her.

Here's some money for you.

Can you see those children of mine anywhere?

3. By numerals, ordinal or cardinal, which state the number or order, or serve to identify persons or non-persons, as in:

He arrived just three weeks ago.

Robert has always been the first boy in his class.

Is it part two of the book?

4. By (a) nouns in the common case singular or (b) prepositional nominal phrases, which characterize the person or non-person either qualitatively or from the point of view of its locative, temporal, or other features.

The nouns are always premodifying attributes, the prepositional nominal phrases are postmodifying:

a) It happened on a December evening (декабрьский вечер).
The boy started to eat a
ham roll (булочка с ветчиной).
garden wall was almost ruined (садовая стена).

There was a honeymoon couple among the passengers (пара, проводящая медовый месяц).

b) The new secretary, on promotion from the general office, was a widow of fifty.

He was a man of very regular habits.

Anything of interest this morning, Miss Lemon?

In some cases the attribute and its headword form a closely connected unit, such as the continent of Europe (Европейский континент), the name of Brighton Kurby (имя Брайтон Кёрби), the village of Crowle (деревня Кроул). Although the prepositional group is a subordinate and characterizing element, modifying the first word, its informative value is much greater than that of the first element.

In structures of this type the semantic roles of the elements may be reversed: the first (subordinating) element becomes a modifying word, the second (subordinated) - the modified one, as in:

his carrot of a nose (нос морковкой; не нос, а морковка),
an angel of a girl (
не девушка, а ангел),
a hell of a noise (
адским  шум, шум как И илу),
a jewel of a nature (
золотой характер; не характер, а золото)

Though logically his carrot of а пот means that the nose is characterized as resembling, a carrot, syntactically it is the word carrot that is modified by the of-phrase of a nose, the indefinite article performing its usual classifying function. The modified word is not always semantically acceptable as part of the sentence without the of-phrase, which shows the semantic dependence of the modified element on the modifying one. This, together with the fact that logical and syntactic relations are reversed, accounts for the marked stylistic effect of these structures.

His left hand was holding a skyscraper of a silver cup.

High above the bank is another eagle's nest of a castle.

Russian phrases of a similar kind - не девка, а огонь; не ребенок, а сущий дьяволенок, unlike the parallel English phrases, are rarely included in extended sentences.

5. By nouns or pronouns in the genitive case.

He caught the sound of the children's voices.

The ocean's vastness was so great that it held him spellbound.

Nelson had asked Mary's father's consent before proposing.

If the headword is omitted (when the sentence is elliptical) the modifying word should still be considered as an attribute.

Suppose those postcards are a lunatic's?

She heard the voice of another man, perhaps it was the water-carrier's and then a woman's, shrill and hysterical.

6. By statives, although these are rarely used as attributes. They usually postmodify the headword, though may occur as premodifying.

No man alive would ever think of such cruelty.

She gazed at us with an aloof air.

7. By (a) participles I and II and (b) participial phrases, characterizing the person or non-person through an action, process, or reaction.

a) He made his way down the creaking stairs.

The mild day died in a darkening flush of twilight.

They stood contemplating the suited dummies in the lighted windows of the shop.

They stood at the car being refuelled and watched the meter.

b) Captain Nichols dragged Strickland, bleeding from a wound in his arm, into the street.

There was a tiny smile playing about the corners of his mouth.

Vincent glanced over at Christine knitting by the fire.

Beside her stood a straw basket stuffed with many towels and a pair of beach shoes.

8. By (a) gerunds, (b) gerundial phrases, or (c) gerundial complexes. Gerunds generally characterize non-persons from the point of view of their function or purpose.

a) Back at the hotel he slipped on a white rowing blazer (the blazer which the members of the boat-club wore).

Her walking shoes were elegant (shoes which she wore when walking).

(Compare these with attributes expressed by participle I, in the sentences given above (7), which denote an action, process or reaction - sometimes figuratively.)

b) He would not run the risk of being too late.
She showed no sign of having ever known me.

The young man had the most irritating habit of joking at the wrong moment.

c) The silence was interrupted by the sound of a door being banged.
There is no chance of our seeing him again.

9. By (a) infinitives, (b) infinitivel phrases, or (c) complexes, which characterize a person or non-person through some real or hypothetical action in which this person or non-person is or may be involved. Owing to the hypothetical nature of the action, an infinitive as attribute often imparts a modal shade of meaning to the action.

a) You are the one to blame (who is to blame).

I haven't any time to spare (which I could spare).

b) He looked around for a weapon to strike his insulter with.
He was not a man to experiment with acquaintance.

There was nothing in the look of him to show the courage of the man (nothing which could show courage).

He was the last to tell of this extraordinary raid from the deeper sea (who could tell).

c) This is a problem for you to solve, (which you could/must solve).

10. By (a) adverbs or (b) adverbial phrases, which characterize a person or non-person through spatial or temporal characteristics, or through circumstances or facts concerning this person or non-person.

a) No sounds came from the quarters above.

The then Government did not respond to this just claim.

Somebody appeared on the upstairs balcony.

“I see that woman downstairs has a couple of sailors sitting there”

An immense effort of imagination was needed to link himself now with himself then.

The most usual position of such attributes is to follow the headword.

b) Most people living in out of the way places expect the latest news from home with impatience.

11. By sentences used as a whole (the so-called “quotation nouns”). These are used mainly as hyphenated chains before the headword.

She looked at me with a kind of don't-touch-me-or-1'll-slap-you air.

It was a 'You-must-take-us-as-you-find-us' attitude to things, and it saved me a lot of trouble...

In this 'a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place' kitchen he felt ill at ease.

12. By a clause (then called an attributive clause) which makes the whole sentence a complex one.

Some called me by the name which no one here knew.

The position of attributes

§ 86. The position of an attribute depends on the following:

1. The morphological nature of the attribute. Adjectives, participles, gerunds, nouns in the common and the possessive cases, pronouns, ordinal numerals, and quotation nouns generally premodify the headword.

He was a little man, with a thin voice.

Val had just changed out of riding clothes and was on his way to the party.

The apple trees were in blossom.

It's not always easy to understand a child's language.

The third attempt gave no result.

His eyes travelled over the landscape at their feet.

Adverbs, statives, cardinal numerals and infinitives are generally postmodifying attributes.

Participles II, statives, and adjectives of verbal origin used as attributes also tend to occupy the position after the headword.

The people involved were reported to the police.

When we build cities we think about generations unborn.

Adjectives ending in -able, -ible are mostly postpositive as attributes. They often follow a headword preceded by only or a similar word with a limiting meaning.

The only person visible was the policeman (who could be seen).

The only way of escaping imaginable was through the window (which could be imagined).

2. The extension of the attribute. Non-detached attributed are postmodifying when expressed by extended phrases or complexes.

The influence of extension can be illustrated by the following pairs of examples:

It is a sensible suggestion. It is a suggestion sensible in many ways.

He found himself in a difficult situation. He found himself in a situation difficult from his point of view.

Here are some more examples:

They passed the bodies of British soldiers killed that night.

It was a little log house with whitewashed walls.

He held a letter in his hands, a letter from his mother.

He appeared to be a small man of about fifty,

They chose a way longer than the other.

3. The morphological nature of the headword . Such words as demonstrative or indefinite pronouns and numerals cannot have an attribute in preposition.

Those coming first occupied the best seats.

Most of their time animals spend in search of something eatable.

There is nothing interesting in this book.

All present were disgusted by his behaviour. 

Types of connection between an attribute and its headword

§ 87. From the point of view of their connection with the headword and other parts of the sentence, attributes may be divided into non-detached (close) and detached (loose) ones.

Non-detached attributes

§ 88. Non-detached attributes form one sense group with their head-word and are not separated from it by commas.

They generally adjoin the headword, either preinodifyiug, post modifying, or embedding it, and are connected with other parts of the only through the headword.

Non-detached premodifying attributes may he unextended, consisting, of one word only, or form chains of homogeneous attributes with identical reference, as in: a nice girl, a pretty house; crimson, white, and yellow flowers.

Attributes with identical reference (crimson flowers, white flowers, and yellow flowers - crimson, white, and yellow flowers) are usually interchangeable (yellow, white, and crimson flowers) and are set off by commas (crimson, white, yellow flowers) or joined by a conjunction as they are in the example given above.

Attributes may form a string with different reference, that is, those of them which are closer to the noun form one whole with subsequent words:

her usual (good temper);

a clever (young man) (compare with crimson, white, yellow flowers);

a large black and white (hunting dog).

In the word-group a large black and white hunting dog the adjective large refers to black and white hunting dog, black and white refers to hunting dog, and hunting refers to dog. This relation of attributes embedded inside a string of them requires a fixed order and no comma is used to separate them. The phrase an old lady's hat allows of two possible interpretations: (An old lady) 's hat and an old (lady's hat).

If there are relations other than attributive within the string of premodifying words, the whole string functions as one attribute. In this case they are usually hyphenated, as in:

most deeply-felt emotions; too-new shoes, a word-for-word translation, a brass-coffee-pot-like thing (a thing looking like a brass coffee-pot);

a dirty-collar, unbrushed-coat man (a man with a dirty collar and in an unbrushed coat).

One of the characteristic features of English, especially in academic and newspaper style is a marked tendency to form long strings of phrasal attributes (usually called compositional phrases), which express in a compressed form the content of a clause or sentence and which can be easily turned into one, if necessary form words are added (prepositions, link verbs, etc.) and the morphological changes are introduced, as in:

Fish-breeding plants. (Plants that breed fish.)

Efficient salt-producing mines. (Mines that produce salt efficiently.)

The uranium-supply industry. (Industry that supplies uranium to…)

The last decade's scarcity of hands in the country. (In the last decade hands were scarce in the country.)

The long-looked-for hours. (The horns which were looked for loung.)

Detached attributes

§ 89. A detached attribute is only loosely connected with its headword and is often optional from the point of view of structure, although very important semantically. It forms a separate sense group in speech and is accordingly separated by commas in writing.

A detached attribute may be placed in preposition, post-position, or often at some distance from the headword.

Carrie looked about her, very much disturbed and quite sure that she did not want to work here.

Unlike non-detached attributes, a detached attribute may modify personal and relative pronouns.

Big and strong, he impressed us greatly.

Very often a detached attribute refers not only to the headword, but also to another part of the sentence, thus forming a double connection. For example, a detached attribute referring both to the subject of the sentence and to the predicate may have in addition to its attributive meaning some adverbial shade of meaning, such as conditional, causal, or concessive.

And for a moment I hesitated, unable to start talking (as I was unable to start talking).

Familiar with these details, Michael paid them little attention (because he was familiar with these details).


Phrases like sort of tired (I feel sort of tired), kind of tiresome (The situation becomes kind of tiresome), etc., form one syntactic whole and cannot be treated as free syntactic phrases consisting of a headword modified by a prepositional attribute. The first element expresses approximation - a moderate degree of the quality denoted.


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