Note: This is cross-posted on ELL.se at Сoncept of an attribute used by Russian grammarians.

I need to know all the attributes in theese sentences and how they are expressed.The problem is that grammatical terms and rules I use, are different from the traditional or modern English grammars (it's Russian).That's why I was adviced to post here,as people here deal with various grammatical terms.

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

  2. 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.

  • This is too long and too unclear.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 11, 2015 at 10:04
  • Also when you're quoting people you need to give proper references to them. Please edit this to make it perfectly clear which parts you have written and which parts are quotes.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 11, 2015 at 10:26
  • So this question is asking about modifiers. But I don't understand what kind of difference there is between the "simple" and "complex" ones.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 11, 2015 at 12:03
  • Added notification of cross-post to top. I think this cross-post could be helpful to ELL if/when we need to better understand Russian grammars of English to help L2 English learners from Russia. Mar 13, 2015 at 6:54

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 functioning as sentence adjuncts describing an entity depicted by a noun phrase), as well as subjectless non-finite clauses functioning as adjuncts in the sentence, when the subject is understood as one of the entities in 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.

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 author's examples, an article has 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.

  • What's the difference between "simple" and "complex" attributes?
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 13, 2015 at 0:19
  • @curiousdannii I'm sorry, it took me quite a while to digest that much and translate it into my grammar. Haven't decided to get that far yet :) Mar 13, 2015 at 1:16
  • Are you quite sure that only modifiers of NPs can be attributes? We did learn the concept in school, and as far as I can remember 'very' in 'He sang very poorly' would have been considered an attribute as well, since it is not a "part of the sentence" itself but only modifiying it. (So you couldn't ask "How did he sing poorly", only "How poorly did he sing").
    – user9315
    Mar 13, 2015 at 9:44
  • 1
    @MaxP I know that for a lot of people and in a lot of grammars "attributes" are basically modifiers or adjuncts in general, but in the book that the OP is citing from, modifiers have to relate to NPs. In the book they're pretty clear about it. In the section OP quotes from it isn't quite so clear, but it does say The most characteristic feature of the attribute is that it always refers to a noun or its substitute (a noun-pronoun or substantivised element) (Under section headed Information) Mar 13, 2015 at 10:04

You did not include any definition or examples of phrasal attributes, which would be helpful. You missed

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

Such is a simple adverb, but I have a feeling like to have happened to that gentle, helpless creature is in some way licensed by cruel, which would make it kind of one attribute I think (i.e. the thing was cruel to have happened to ...). So it would be a complex (or phrasal? or clausal? What exactly are the definitions?) adjective.

  1. Dumb with amazement, I slumped into my chair.

Which appears to be a detached phrasal adjectival attribute.

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

Best and for you to do are in some kind of relation here, so I would guess that they are the same attribute, but I have no idea by your examples what kind of attribute it might be. (Because "the thing for you to do" would be "the thing you should do", but "the best thing for you to do" is "the thing which to do would be best for you".)

  1. The fence surrounding the garden is newly painted.

A simple adverb, modifiying painted.

Otherwise, the ones you already have are correct.

  • I'm so confused.I asked this question on (ell.stackexchange.com/questions/52099/how-to-find-an-attribute) and the answer was quite different. It's surprising how different views about an attribute may be. Mar 11, 2015 at 11:39
  • Not to speak ill of other stack users, but I think they are quite clearly wrong. Give it some time.
    – user9315
    Mar 11, 2015 at 11:43
  • @Study.English.Well Your question is using terminology which is very nonstandard in contemporary English linguistics. It is also very long and confusing. Maybe you could start with a definition of "attribute" from those grammars.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 11, 2015 at 11:54
  • @curiousdannii Attribute is a term of traditional grammar, used to denote constituents that can be left out without changing the "parts of the sentence", which I would translate as all lexical maximal projections that are embedded deeper than arguments and modifiers of the verb.
    – user9315
    Mar 12, 2015 at 2:41
  • 1
    @Araucaria Yes, apparently possessive pronouns seem to count as attributes because they add meaning beyond the more neutral meaning of the article they replace, but that always seemed like cheating to me.
    – user9315
    Mar 12, 2015 at 20:57

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