Definite Attributive Adjectives

by Kevin Cauley
If we are familiar with our English grammar, then we will be very well aware that an adjective is a word that describes a noun. An adjective specifies the quality of a noun by indicating is quantity or scope. An adjective specifies something about the thing named. In the classic Bugs Bunny question, “Would you like one lump or two?” the adjectives are the words “one” and “two.” Numbers, colors, sizes, descriptions –- these are the concerns of adjectives.
In English, attributive adjectives generally come before the noun being modified. “The man has brown hair. The girl has hazel eyes. The dog has sharp teeth.” By contrast, the word order in Greek can be quite different and different word orders may signify different things. This begs the question, if adjectives can go anywhere in the sentence in relationship to the nouns they modify, how can we know what adjective goes with what noun? This is where inflective languages are useful. Greek adjectives will, as a general rule, agree with the Greek noun, that is, the adjective will take the noun’s case, number, and gender. That still leaves some room for ambiguity, but context generally takes care of figuring out the rest. Let’s note then how attributive adjectives work together with nouns in Greek.
Word order, as we mentioned, isn’t the same in Greek as it is in English. An adjective may come before a noun or after a noun depending upon the role it plays in the sentence. The definite article or the absence of it also plays a role in understanding the adjective’s relationship to the noun. Wallace speaks of the two positions of the adjective, the attributive position and the predicate position. He lists three attributive positions and two predicate positions with the article and two attributive positions and two predicate positions without the article. Let’s look at the definite attributive adjective.
The first attributive position takes the form article-adjective-noun. In this position the emphasis is upon the adjective more than the substantive. One such example can be found in Matthew 5:35 where Jesus says not to swear by heaven, the earth, “neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.” The object “the great King” is our adjectival expression. The emphasis here is upon “great.” Jerusalem isn’t just the city of any king, but the one great King, i.e. God (compare Psalm 48:2, Malachi 1:14). This is the most common usage.
The second attributive position takes the form article-noun-article-adjective. In this position the emphasis is upon both the adjective and substantive with a sort of apex on the adjective which follows the noun. John 15:1 is a good example of this construction. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” Literally, Jesus says, “I am the vine the true….” Jesus is the vine, but not just any vine; he is the true vine.
The third attributive position takes the form noun-article-adjective. In this position the substantive is indefinite and general. The adjective, however, is specific. One example is found in Acts 2:20 “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.” In this verse, “that great and notable day” is the adjective-substantive construction we are examining. “Day” is the substantive. “Great” and “notable” are the adjectives. There is no definite article before “day” in Greek here. The article is attached to the adjectival conjunction “great and notable.” So, the focus in this expression isn’t upon the day but upon the great and notable things that would occur in this day. The ASV translates the verse as follows: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the day of the Lord come, That great and notable day.” The third attributive position is not as common.
Attributive adjectives can also be anarthrous (without the definite article) and have similar significance as in English, i.e. a bad day, or a fast car, etc. Sometimes the adjective comes before the substantive and sometimes after. The Greek adjective can also be predicative, which we will be discussed in another article.

One thought on “Definite Attributive Adjectives

  1. What is your position on “the” vs “a” in ITim 6:10
    …the love of money is THE root of all evil? Please explain

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