What’s a predicate

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to our Grammay special, this time as a normal post again, instead of a dictionary entry.. yeah, I know, I keep switching back and forth, but I just realized that you can’t mark the dictionary entries as “read”.
Anyway, today we’ll take a quick look at one of the most useless grammar terms ever… in teaching, anyway.

the prediCATe

Mrrreeoooww!
So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

I don’t know how common the word “predicate” is in the context of English grammar, but when you learn German, chances are that you will hear das Prädikat at some point, especially if you happen to have a teacher who’s a bit on the jargon side, because ...”tHoSe ArE tHe PrOpEr TeRmS!”.
They then typically use das Prädikat as if it is one of the most well known things on the planet. But the reality is that 95% of learners do not really know what a predicate is. I didn’t even really know it until I started writing this.

And if you’re now like “Yeah, I’m like totally in the elite 5%.” then let me tell you… I wouldn’t be so sure. Because there is something about the whole thing that you probably don’t know and that makes the term pretty useless for language learning.

As most grammar terms, predicate comes from Boring, and it’s a… oh… I mean, comes from Latin and it’s a combination of the prefix pre-, which is about “forth, in front, about” and the verb dicere. The origin of that is the disgustingly ancient Indo-European root *deik– which was about showing, which we can still see in the German offspring zeigen (to show) or the words index and indicate. But in Latin, it also took on the idea of “verbally showing”, which we can see in word like dictionary or predict.

And the  original meaning of praedicatum was “what is said about a subject”, and that’s how it was used in grammar, as well.
So if I were to say that Thomas wears Maria’s jeans from time to time (not saying he does, just an example. He might, though.), that whole thing would be the predicate. So it’s basically anything BUT the subject.
Simple enough, right?

Well… no.

The problem with “predicate”

In context of language learning, grammar terms are often treated like they’re universal constants of the language universe.
But even though they usually come from Latin and  look pretty much the same across languages, they do NOT always mean the same thing.
And predicate is one example for that. English grammar tends to use the classic Latin idea we just learned.

  • Thomas [wants to drink a coffee in the sun].

But there are different “schools” in linguistics, and some have a different definition. They say that the predicate is ONLY the verbal phrase.

  • Thomas [wants to drink] a coffee in the sun.

One source I found that talked about the predicate in English called this one the predicate and the first one the full predicate, because … yeah.. that’s not confusing at all.

Anyway, so German grammar generally uses the second definition of a predicate, so German the predicate is basically “all the verbs”.  The reason is that the classic definition of the predicate didn’t really work for the underlying German structure and how German sees its verbs.
But anyway, while the term predicate is helpful in linguistics, it is so good a tool for language learning and teaching.
It’s just weird if there are conflicting definitions for stuff and you have to learn the definition AND the term. It’s much more fun to learn neither of them, and predicate is really not a term you’d miss.
Like… it’s not like conditional or past tense or conjugation. Those are things that people look up when the learn a language but I don’t think anyone looks up “how does predicate work in German”. No one cares. People would just say verb, or verbal phrase.
And as a teacher, I can also say that I can get by very well without using the word predicate. So yeah… my stance is that predicate is not useful in context of language learning and should disappear. Shoo, predi-cat, shoo, shoo.
But I’m a bit of a hater when it comes to grammar terms, so yeah… it’s really just my opinion :)

Cool, so now you know what a predicate is, and if your teacher likes using the term a lot, you could ask them some time if they’re aware that it’s not as universal and “clear” as they think.

If you have any questions or thoughts about this, let me know in the comments and also, let me know about your experiences with the term?
Did you know what it is? Does your  teacher or textbook use it? And does your mother tongue have the term?
I’ll see you in the comment section, have a great day and bis bald :).

 

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Emanuel Boboiu
Emanuel Boboiu
1 year ago

Why doesn’t this article have the option to mark it as read? I think I also found some other articles where I can’t click the Done button… This option must be included by default in all articles… :)

kbas
kbas
1 year ago

Hi Manu,

I have the same problem as others: this article will not load (quota error message) even though I am logged-in. I have gone to the direct link (https://yourdailygerman.com/predicate-meaning) and so-on. I think it is just this article with the problem, because I am able to read other articles.

kbas
kbas
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yep, it works now, thanks, now I can finally resolve the mystery of the predicate! ;)

Ruth
Ruth
1 year ago

I haven’t read this blog for long time, but it still says that I have used of my free quotas for the week…

Jeremy
Jeremy
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Guten Morgen, FYI, the link didn’t work either, as I get the same note as Ruth…

alexlloyd
alexlloyd
1 year ago

Hi Emanuel,

I’m blocked from reading this article for some reason, even though I’m a member. https://photos.app.goo.gl/a1cEfTyX8LBxvRjd6. Downloading as PDF still works fine, and I can still read other articles.

Danke!

graz
graz
1 year ago
Reply to  alexlloyd

I can’t read this post too, even if I’m logged.

graz
graz
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hi Emanuel, a little feedback for you: you’re right, I entered the site from the newsletter as usual (never had any problems with hidden posts before). Now everything works well.
I log myself from the email regularly, I think this situation was related to this post only. I’m late but I hope this is useful to you.
Alles in Ordnung! Vielen Dank!

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

I noticed that when I post something, then hit the button, I see the words “awaiting for approval” next to my name. It should say “awaiting approval”.

With all due respect, while the words “wait” and “await” pretty much mean the same thing, the word “for” does not go with “await”. Here’s an example:

“Awaiting the birth of his first child, Michael Phelps has decided to skip an Olympic prep meet in Atlanta next week.”

Here’s another example (an old proverb):

  • “Time waits for no man,” goes the old proverb.

https://writingexplained.org/awaiting-vs-waiting-difference

Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

Two days ago, I got an email from Emanuel in which the phrase “heute mal” was used. What is the difference between “heute” and “heute mal”?

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

I remember, when we started to learn English (… looooong time ago …)
one of the first rules, we had to learn, was the general sentence structure in English:

“SPO”
= Subjekt-Prädikat-Objekt

;-)

Mohak
Mohak
1 year ago

I just wanted to thank everyone here for helping me out with the membership subscription I really like this blog and it is super helpful , thankfully now with your help ill be able to learn German thoroughly and clear all my doubts .thanks again Emanuel

Mohit
Mohit
1 year ago

Thanku all. especially Emanuel

Kimia
Kimia
1 year ago

Thanks a lot to those amazing people paying a little extra so people who couldn’t pay like me could still get a chance to learn!! it really means a lot! I’m so grateful guys :)

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

I think this touches on that magical thing Sprachgefühl. If only I thought like german speakers do, if only I could express myself naturally as they do. If only I didn’t stumble about and splutter while the good people of Munich look on me with pity and then reply to me in very good English.

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Hahahag

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Eh, their English isn’t that great here ;D

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

or their German either XD

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago

I’m having a hard time thinking back to 4th grade or whenever it was, but I think I learned “predicate” as “everything that’s not the subject.”

I don’t know if it’s useless for learning, but it really is just an incredibly broad term. Basically:

  • What’s the sentence about? The subject.
  • What’s the sentence say about it? The predicate.

Cool, but predicate really is just shorthand for “whatever the sentence says about whatever the sentence is about.”

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I mean, my oldest is in 2nd grade here, just a normal public school, and they’re definitely doing at least a lot of “find the nouns, find the verbs, find the adjectives” sort of exercises in German. I’ll try to keep track of what sorts of grammar concepts he’s getting at various stages…

But I think there is a real difference between teaching grammar to primarily native speakers who can speak and read already and hitting second-language learners with all the jargon. The idea with grammar in elementary education is that you’re preparing them to take apart more challenging texts whose meaning will be less obvious when they first encounter them, and to help them understand what makes for good style.

A lot probably depends on how you present and explain the concepts, but I think there’s plenty of value in learning early on to take apart your own language and see how it works.

Lucas
Lucas
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

I remember also learning between 4th and 6th grade those terms. In Spanish we use that broad concepts, where each of them has a ‘nucleus’. The nucleus of the subject is a noun or pronoun and the nucleus of the predicate is a verb.
Although we don’t use sentence analysis in everyday life, the core idea is that the objects in each of them match with their respective nuclei and the nuclei match between themselves in gender and number (no cases, luckily).
Also, with that, we learnt the different “blocks”, mentioned in another article here, and the possible rearrangements as well.
So, perhaps the concept of predicate doesn’t remain useful itself, but in the process we acquire the skills for proper redaction.

Starbuck
Starbuck
1 year ago

Why can’t I mark this as read? :(

Also, i never knew what predicate meant, and i still don’t, and i hopefully never will ^^

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

I never had a problem replacing “predicate” with “verb.” Except with crossword puzzles.

The definition that always made the most sense to me is – verbs are a type of word, and the predicate is the role the verb (or something else) can take on in a sentence, basically saying what happens to the subject. Which I still think is too abstract to be useful in daily life, but maybe it could come in handy if you need a framework to look at how different languages work. So in English you could take a sentence like “I am happy” and say, OK, the verb is doing its verb thing here, but in Turkish a suffix does that job. Although you really don’t need a fancy word to explain that.

The thing I can’t get my head around is the theory about predicates that tries to divide a sentence into a noun box and verb box. Why, just because a philosopher said some stuff about philosophy a couple thousand years ago? It seems artificial and not useful. If I take an example:

You shouldn’t walk on the pavement barefoot when it’s 100F (40C, ish?) outside. (totally hypothetical example)

The theory would basically tell me that “you” is the subject and the rest of the sentence isn’t. Gee, thanks. But if you assume that the verb is the “center” of the sentence, you can come up with a pretty easy way to see how the different parts relate to each other. Just gotta ask who, what, when, where, why, how.

Who shouldn’t walk? You. Walk where? On the pavement. Walk how? Barefoot. Walk when? When it’s 100F outside.

To me, that’s a lot more intuitive, plus it gives you a good jumping off place to explain the grammar terms that don’t make people want to stick a fork in their face, or at least not as much as the high-falutin’ $20 words.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but that theory really grinds my gears I totally don’t have strong feelings about it or anything.

RuthE
RuthE
1 year ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

“But if you assume that the verb is the “center” of the sentence, you can come up with a pretty easy way to see how the different parts relate to each other. Just gotta ask who, what, when, where, why, how.
Who shouldn’t walk? You. Walk where? On the pavement. Walk how? Barefoot. Walk when? When it’s 100F outside.

I definitely like this. It immediately sounds more widely useful than any framework I’ve been subjected to before. No idea if it could be universally applied. Knowing how languages work, especially after Emanuel has pointed out this predicate detail, probably not.

That old fork-in-the-face feeling is enough to discourage even the most dedicated linguaphile. For me it was the names of the verb tenses and moods. I’m not sure I’ve got those down even yet – they keep changing across languages.

What I do like, over all, is the eventual appearance of the magic Sprachgefuehl – after that you don’t have to be concerned about predicates and whatnot so much. :-D

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  RuthE

Yeah, there’s something about verbs and complicated labels. I like to come up with my own names based on what the different forms do. Kind of like Friends episodes. “Konjunktiv I” doesn’t stick in my brain too well, but I can remember “the one where you mark that someone else said something.” If I tack on an example, I’m usually good.

Das Känguru sagt, es habe mein Jojo nicht kaputt gemacht.

And then it feels like I’m freeing up a tiny bit of brain power for stuff like remembering genders.

The feeling when things finally start to click is the best. Definitely makes up for the times when it feels like you took an egg beater to the brain.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yeah, I’m in the middle of re-reading it :) Listening, actually, the audiobook is fantastic.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

berlingrabers started the discussion and then I jumped in. I don’t know much about Ancient Greek, just enough to convince me that German is definitely easier, but yeah, it makes sense that Aristotle would have had a really different lens for looking at the world.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

To be clear, I’ve studied some Koine Greek, which is what the New Testament is written in – there’s a pretty big difference between that (from the Hellenistic period, about 3rd century BC onward) and Attic (i.e. really actually classical Ancient Greek) from earlier. Koine means “common,” so it’s a pretty heavily simplified version of the language. I’d be pretty lost if I sat down and tried to read Aristotle in the original.

I’m not sure I’ve thought enough about it to know how strong a “subject vs. non-subject” dichotomy there is. At least in Koine, there’s some weird fluidity with cases that takes some mind-yoga. Like, in a sentence like this:

  • As Thomas was walking through the park, a unicorn ran by him.

…the subject of the side sentence, “Thomas,” would be in genitive (instead of a verb “was walking,” though, it would just be a genitive participle walking – in German, some monstrosity like “Des Thomas im Park laufend…”). Which maybe would support the idea that you’re marking the subject of the main sentence, the nominative unicorn, more clearly as subject and distinguishing it from everything else.

What’s weird is that the subject of an infinitive is in accusative. So like:

  • As the unicorn ran past Thomas, it stole his bike.

…might be phrased something like “During the unicorn’s running [in Greek, this would be an infinitive like in German beim Laufen] past Thomas, it stole his bike.” But “unicorn” would be in accusative, even though it’s clearly the subject of both sentences.

I don’t know if that helps or hurts. I’m sure in full-on Classical Greek, it’s even crazier.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

Huh. That’s so completely different than anything I’m used to. Neat, though. Thanks for the examples!

(P.S. I’m logged in and this article says I reached the 2 post limit. Just this article though.)

Michael Chambers
Michael Chambers
1 year ago

I agree that the term is initially confusing because of the different meanings. Perhaps it becomes useful for an advanced learner who’s aiming to improve accuracy e.g. in case forms. It gives them an extra tool.

Paul Ed
Paul Ed
1 year ago

I have no idea what predicate even means for English grammar, and I’ve been speaking that perfectly my whole life! Seems to be something that academics would write essays about that has absolutely no relevance to everyone else. I’m not into existentialism but pragmatism: In what situation would knowing what a predicate is assist in knowing how to say something? In English this is none. Seems to be the same in German.

Michael Chambers
Michael Chambers
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Ed

It depends how you use the term. It can be helpful in language teaching. Emmanuel makes a good point that it’s not necessary for a teacher to insist on teaching all grammatical categories. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. But more advanced language users can benefit from them. And some grammatical categories – like cases of nouns – need to be taught early.

Emanuel Boboiu
Emanuel Boboiu
1 year ago

In the Romanian gymnasium school, students learn the following definition for the term predicate:
“Predicatul este…” oh no, not in Romanian, better in English: Predicate is the main part of the sentence, which shows an action, a state or an attribute of the subject.
There are two types of predicate
Verbal predicate = predicate expressed by a predicative verb (or by an interjection).
Nominal predicate = predicate expressed by a copulative verb and a predicative noun. (Copulative verbs: to be, to become, …; they do not make sense alone)
In our country, when we do a grammar analysis in school and analyze it from the point of view of syntax, we can have the following two examples of predicates:
Verbal predicate: “Thomas [works] hard every day.”;
Nominal predicate: “Thomas [is a] handsome [worker].” (Here, “is a worker” is a nominal predicate, “is” is the copulative verb, and “a worker” is the predicative noun; both elements constitute together the predicate of the sentence.)

Emanuel Boboiu
Emanuel Boboiu
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

indeed, For learning a language, I believe now, that the term predicate is useless.

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel Boboiu

The same happens in Italian

Zuckerbaby
Zuckerbaby
1 year ago

Of course, I learned about the predicate, especially from being taught how to diagram sentences. That instruction was given in the sixth grate in Boston public schools. There is also the predicate nominative, which is abjured by most Americans: It is I; it is not we; is it they?

RuthE
RuthE
1 year ago
Reply to  Zuckerbaby

I certainly got a lot out of diagramming sentences. However, my son is a linguophile like me, and he says it didn’t enlighten him at all. Partly, I think, is because the grammar definitions aren’t as precise as they might be. And undoubtedly they can’t be tightened up, as Emanuel has pointed out.

And you’re right about these predicate nominatives – and that’s just the way the language changes. I might not like it particularly, but I certainly can’t stop it. :-)

RuthE
RuthE
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That’s what Son said, he didn’t see the problem the diagrams were solving. For me the diagrams were a visual thing that helped me keep track of the dynamics of the sentence. They aren’t particularly useful to me any more.

Michael Chambers
Michael Chambers
1 year ago
Reply to  Zuckerbaby

I’m English and I would say “It is I” only to sound ironically pompous! It makes more sense to define “me” as the basic form, with the only exception being “I” for the nominative when used with its main verb.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That particular quirk isn’t unique to English, though, is it? C’est moi, if I remember my 9th-grade French correctly…

peeet
peeet
1 year ago

This subject gives me a Prädikater.

Brightstar
Brightstar
1 year ago

I thought you were going to explain something else. Knowing the definition doesn’t help understand how to use it. I have asked few times about the predicate but definitions are equally vague. I don’t know what to do with, for instance, the two definitions you mentioned.