On one corner of my street, someone has put up a sign that reads Found Cat, and at the other corner, someone else has put up another sign for another cat that reads Cat Found. Aside from the fact that there seem to be a lot of unattached cats in the neighborhood, what is the difference in grammar and effect between these two headlines?
What’s going on here has to do grammatically with where to place an adjective in relation to its noun. When an adjective precedes the noun it modifies, as in found cat, it is called an attributive adjective, because in that position it intends to name an attribute, or essential characteristic, of its noun. If I say that my cat likes dry food more than wet food, the adjectives dry and wet are being used attributively. I mean simply to identify the kind of food I am referring to. Nothing’s happening; I’m just naming something in the world, something called dry food and something called wet food.
If instead an adjective follows its noun, as in the headline cat found, it is said to be a predicate adjective, because it implies a predicate, that part of a clause that contains a verb. To predicate means to speak forth, to say something, and we say something about something else with a verb. The phrase cat found, then, with its adjective in the predicate position, suggests or implies or insinuates a verb between the two words, perhaps was or has been: a cat was found, a cat has been found. Predicate adjectives imply an unstated verb like this between the noun and its adjective because the standard English word order of a declarative sentence calls first for the noun, and then for the verb and its complement (that being any element, such as an adjective, that completes the predicate the verb has made).
This last parenthetical point is really very important for good, strong writing: verbs make predicates, which means they create whole worlds where things are happening. Verbs represent the Big Bang of the linguistic universe we conjure every time we write a sentence. The headline that reads cat found, with its adjective in the predicate position, is the better choice of the two versions because it suggests that something has happened. To reverse the order of the words, putting the adjective in the attributive position, merely expands a potential subject phrase, but doesn’t suggest a verb for it: a found cat—so what about it? The writer wanted to say that a cat had been found, but attached the predication onto the noun and was left with nothing more to say or suggest.
All this has to do with the fundamental notion that to our rational mind, the frame of mind to which our regular daily language appeals (and from which it arises), the world is made up of things acting. We name things with nouns and we say what is happening with verbs. Merely to name something, as in the phrase found cat, is to miss the opportunity to create, if even only by suggestion, a world in which something has happened, that a cat has been found. That set of circumstances brings the problem straight to the heart of the sympathetic reader; what has happened, explicitly or implicitly, is now more directly before someone, affecting their attention all the more deeply because all of us are moved by what is moving in the world, by what is happening around us, whether we choose then to get involved or not.
This distinction between an attributive and predicate adjective is another way to illustrate the grammatical (and logical) difference between a subject and its predicate. We write and speak to say something about something—it’s as simple and complex as that. If we can keep the grammatical elements in their right place as we construct our sentences, that precision will translate into bright and clear language—all the better to be understood.
Upcoming Short Course
Reading Closely to Write
Wednesdays, September 27 through October 18
6:00 to 7:00 p.m. CT
It’s an open secret that we learn to write better and better by reading more and more closely. On Wednesday, September 27, Writing Smartly will begin another short course of four one-hour sessions called Reading Closely to Write. Each week we will examine the structure and stylistic design of sentences from one or two very short stories (each averaging about 16 pages) written by celebrated authors. We will analyze the grammar and composition of certain significant sentences, and consider how other designs the author could have chosen would have produced different effects. Our emphasis will be on the language of the readings, so that we can begin to develop an eye and ear for discovering our own written voice.
New selections this fall term will again be taken from The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Publishers, 2008), readily available at Amazon and elsewhere. Tuition for this four-session online short course is $300 paid through Zelle (email@example.com), or $310 paid through PayPal.
If you have any questions, please email me directly. I hope you can join us.