A predicative adjective (or simply “predicate adjective”) is used in the predicate of a clause to describe either the subject of the clause or the direct object of a verb.
As a subject complement
Predicative adjectives that describe the subject of the clause will follow a linking verb. In such cases, they are known as subject complements. For example:
- “You look nice.”
- “He is old.”
Here, “nice” describes the subject “you,” while “old” describes the subject “he.”
Note that adjectives appearing immediately before the noun they are describing are known as attributive adjectives. For example:
- “The old man seems nice.”
“Old” is an attributive adjective that describes the subject, “man.” “Nice” also describes “man,” but it is a predicative adjective because it follows the linking verb “seems.”
As an object complement
Predicative adjectives can also describe the direct object of non-linking verbs. In this case, such adjectives function as object complements. For example:
- “They painted the door red.”
- “All that training made me stronger.”
The predicative adjectives here are describing (complementing) the direct objects of the verbs, rather than the subjects of the sentences. “Red” describes the noun “door” (not the subject, “they”), while “stronger” describes the pronoun “me” (not the subject, “training”).
Certain verbs are used to indicate perceptions, opinions, or bodily sensations. They are known as verbs of the senses, or “sense verbs” for short. Those verbs are as follows:
Sense verbs merely relate the means by which the speaker has arrived at such a sensation about the subject. When we use them like this, they are functioning as linking verbs (rather than action verbs) and we pair them with predicative adjectives. This is not because the predicative adjective describes the verb, as an adverb would do. Rather, the predicative adjective describes the subject of the clause—they are subject complements, which we looked at above.
- “I feel terrible today.” (A feeling inside of being very unwell.)
- “You sound tired.” (A perception of tiredness in your voice.)
- “She didn’t sound Italian.” (An opinion based on the way her voice sounds.)
- “You look fabulous today.” (This is my opinion when I look at you.)
- “He doesn’t look very happy.” (Again, my opinion based on what my eyes tell me. Note that the adverb “very” is modifying the adjective “happy,” not the verb “look.”)
- “This doesn’t feel right.” (An opinion or perception of something not being as it should.)
- “The car appears OK, but I’ll have to drive it to be sure.” (From what I can see, the car looks like it’s in good condition.)
- “That smells nice.” (Sensation of a pleasant aroma.)
- “This milk tastes funny*.” (Sensation of an odd or unpleasant taste.)
*The adjective “funny” has two meanings. It can describe something that makes you laugh, or something that is strange, unpleasant, dubious, or not as it should be. It carries the latter meaning in the above example.
If any of the above verbs were used as action verbs, they could no longer be followed by an adjective—you would have to pair them with an adverb. For example:
- “I felt gently around the table in the dark.” (Describes the action of feeling with one’s hand.)
- “He looked quickly to the right.” (Describes the action of looking in a certain direction.)
- “The car appeared out of nowhere.” (Describes the action of coming into sight, using a prepositional phrase as an adverb.)
- “Yes, you heard right!” (Right in this case is an adverb meaning “accurately or correctly.”)
Sources of confusion – Good vs. Well
A common stumbling block for natives and learners of English alike is the correct usage of good versus well.
In most instances, good is an attributive adjective directly describing a noun, while well is an adverb describing a verb, adjective, or other adverb. For example:
- “He is a good driver.”
- “She writes well.”
We cannot use good and well interchangeably in these instances, and we can see immediately that the following would be incorrect:
- “He is a well driver.”
- “She writes good.”
However, well can also function as a predicative adjective, where it usually means “healthy” or “not ill.” We use it in this sense after linking verbs such as be, get, or the sense verbs above:
- “Jenny looks well lately.”
- “Get well soon!”
In these examples, well does not describe the verbs, but rather the subjects of the sentences (implied in the second example).
Good can be used as a predicative adjective as well, meaning “of a high or satisfactory quality.” This can be used after linking verbs to talk about an opinion of something, an emotional state, or general well-being (as opposed to physical health, specifically). For example:
- “The movie was good.” (Opinion of the quality of the movie.)
- “I’m feeling good about my chances!” (Emotional state.)
- “Janet looks good lately.” (Opinion of Janet’s appearance.)
- A: “How are you, Bob?” B: “I’m good, thanks!” (General well-being.)
The last example is perfectly correct, and it is very frequently used as a stock response to the question “How are you?” You could also say “I’m well,” and no one is likely to take issue with it. However, if someone asks how you are after, for instance, an illness or injury, it would be better to respond with “I’m well.”
If saying “I’m good” still does not sound quite right to you, you could also say “I am doing well,” in which case well is used adverbially once more.
You can learn more about such adjective/adverb oddities in the irregular adverbs section of the chapter on Adverbs.