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Concourse 2

Post-modification of noun phrases


There is a guide to noun modification in general on this site which you may also like to consult.  Here we are concerned only with post-modification of noun phrases.


Why post-modify at all?

Post-modification of noun phrases is a usually simple device to add information to the noun itself.  Although we can say, e.g.:

  1. The man is waving to me.  The man is standing in the corner.

it is more elegant and natural to say, e.g.:

  1. The man in the corner is waving to me.
  2. The man who is standing in the corner is waving to me.
  3. The man standing in the corner is waving to me.

There's nothing at all wrong with 1., but 2., 3. and 4. are simply more natural and precise.


Why should this be a problem?

Primarily because languages do things differently and some abjure post-modification altogether preferring something like:
    The in-the-corner-standing-man is waving to me (Germanic languages, for example)
    The man is standing in the corner and waving to me
(many other languages including Arabic).
Even when a language does use post-modification of noun phrases (and most do) the structures are often very different.  Italic languages, such as French and Italian, for example, routinely position the adjective after the noun.  This is a phenomenon that can occur in English (as we shall see) but is quite rare and sometimes gives an unusual sense.


Types of post-modification of noun phrases

Here are examples of types of post-modification in English.  We'll look at each type in this guide but see if you can already identify the types of post-modification which these represent.

  1. I found nothing useful in the cupboard.
  2. The man involved has been arrested.
  3. The people behind me are making too much noise.
  4. The reason I came to the meeting was to complain.
  5. The reason why I asked for this meeting is to complain.
  6. The child playing on the swings has fallen off.
  7. We need a boat to go over to the island.
  8. The house built by the river is delightful.
  9. The house on the river is delightful.


Adjectives as post-modifiers

This refers to examples A and B in the list:

  1. I found nothing useful in the cupboard.
  2. The man involved has been arrested.

pronouns post-modified

something heavy  

There are some pronouns in English which, if they are modified at all by an adjective, are always post-modified.
Sentence A is an example of this.  They are primarily the any-, every-, some-, no- series, combining with -thing, -body, -one or the pronoun use of else as in these examples:

? Why are the following not acceptable, however?  Click here when you have an answer.
spider It is not true to say that this series of pronouns can never be pre-modified but when it happens it is usually done for comic effect:
  • An unpleasant something is in the shed.
  • A vicious anything is not what you want.


post-modifying adjectives

following the noun  

Some adjectives, often borrowed from other languages, occur after the noun (i.e., post-modify routinely) because English has borrowed the word grammar with the word:

Other examples include court martial, heir apparent, chicken à la Provençale etc.

When we have a string of adjectives, they are quite often in the post-modification position:

This sort of thing is often considered a reduced, non-defining relative clause of some sort:
    John, who was overconfident and arrogant as usual, strode into the room.
It is not, in fact, because in our example, we are simply using the adjectives to describe John generally, not how he was on that day.

adjectival oddities in English

oddball Oddball 1: if we have differences of sex in the noun, we must put the adjective in the post-modifying position.
  • A happier woman than her wouldn't have minded.
  • A woman happier than her wouldn't have minded.
  • A man happier than her wouldn't have minded
  • *A happier man than her wouldn't have minded.
oddball Oddball 2: some adjectives change meaning depending on where they appear.
  • The fire officer concerned gave an interview. [i.e., he was the fire officer who was involved]
  • The concerned fire officer gave an interview. [i.e., the fire officer was worried]
  • The responsible people put the fire out. [i.e., the people were conscientious and reliable]
  • The people responsible were arrested for arson. [i.e., the people were guilty or liable]
  The adjective involved in example B, above works in this way, too:
    The man involved has been arrested
oddball Oddball 3: some adjectives describe a permanent state before the noun and a temporary one after it.
  • The available money [all of it]
    The money available now
    [some of it].
  • The visible galaxies [all of them]
    The galaxies visible tonight
    [some of them].
  These adjectives are almost always formed with -ible or -able suffixes.
oddball Oddball 4: adjectives which are only used predicatively, such as those beginning a- can appear attributively but must be post-modifiers.
  • The people were asleep.
  • The people asleep were woken suddenly.
  • *The asleep people were awoken suddenly.
  • The people were aware.
  • The people aware tackled the fire.
  • *The aware people tackled the fire.

Again, some might consider this a reduced relative clause: The people (who were) asleep etc.  It isn't really.


Adverbs as post-modifiers

There is a large group of adverbs which routinely post-modify nouns.

They refer to place:

and time:

Some of these items can pre-modify because they occupy two possible word classes (adjectives as well as adverbs) so, for example, we can also have:

and in both these cases, the modifier is an adjective.  Move the words to follow the noun and they become adverbs.


Clauses as post-modifiers

the reason I left to the meeting  

The fourth and fifth in the list are examples of clausal post-modifiers:

Relative pronoun clauses and relative adverb clauses are the dominant ones of these and they have guides to themselves so go there for the ways in which such clauses post-modify nouns phrases (the links are at the end).
Here are a few examples of the different types:


Prepositional phrases as post-modifiers

the girl in the corner   

Example C,
    The people behind me are making too much noise
is a post-modifying prepositional phrase.
These come in a variety of flavours and the following is not exhaustive.


  • The man in the corner.
  • The house beyond the hill.


  • The man from the CIA.
  • The girl from Ipanema.


  • An article on teaching post-modification.
  • The answer to your question.


  • A girl like your sister is by the door.
  • There's a noise like an aeroplane going on.


  • The period before the tenth century.
  • The party after his wedding.


  • The roof of the factory.
  • The news of the victory.


  • The whole staff except the boss came.
  • Everyone bar the apprentices worked overtime.


  • A man of great determination.
  • A painting of little skill.


constituents of phrases

We need to be slightly careful in deciding what exactly a prepositional phrase is modifying or our hearers can misinterpret what we mean.
For example, the sentence:
    Jane spoke to the man behind the bar
can be understood in two ways, like this:
In the first sentence, the verb is being post-modified and tells us where she spoke so the separated verb phrase is:
    spoke to ... behind the bar
In the second sentence, the noun is being post-modified and the object noun phrase is:
    the man behind the bar
When the first sense is intended, speakers will insert a slight pause between the man and behind the bar, making two tone units each with a stressed syllable: the man and behind the bar.
When the second sense is intended, the man behind the bar will constitute a single tone unit with one stressed syllable.

linked in the list of related guides at the end are:


Non-finite clauses as post-modifiers

If you aren't certain what a non-finite clause is, check out the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end or click here to go there now (new window or tab).

There are three flavours.

-ing participle clauses
usually refer to an ongoing state or a progressive action (are, i.e., continuous, iterative or progressive in terms of aspect).  For example:

but can refer to prospective events or states as in, e.g.:

past participle clauses
usually relate a past action or state to a present or subsequent state or action (i.e., are perfect in terms of aspect)

infinitive clauses
usually refer to a future or following action or state (i.e., are prospective in terms of aspect)

All of these can, of course, be re-written with relative clauses but that route is often the one to rather clumsy sentences like
    The instructions which you are to follow are ...
Non-finite clauses are economical and elegant.
It is worth bearing in mind that English is slightly unusual in this respect and many languages do not use non-finite clauses, even if they exist, in this way.  This is one reason why learners may often select a rather clumsy formulation because they are unaware that a more elegant solution is available.
All the following can be re-phrased more elegantly by the use of non-finite clauses:



There are times when it is not possible at all to form the parallel relative clause, at least, not without making changes.

To summarise:
Verbs may take the -ing form in post-modifying non-finite clauses without having a corresponding form in the relative clause.  That is especially but not exclusively true of relational verbs.


Teaching and learning noun post-modification

All the preceding should have alerted you to the fact that post-modification is not to be taken lightly.  It is, however, important for all learners to be able to handle the devices confidently.  This is especially true in writing (and for those learners for whom academic or formal writing skills are important, knowledge of how to post-modify noun phrases is essential).
Here are some suggestions.


focus on one at a time

There's little point in overwhelming learners with a mishmash of different types of post-modification and it makes sense, therefore, to focus on one sort at a time.  Here's a suggestion of the order in which to tackle the area:

  1. The easiest are prepositional phrases because the area is already well known to many learners.
    Transforming, for example:
        The cupboard is under the stairs
        The cupboard under the stairs
    does not require high-level analysis.
    It is significant, however, that the simple post-modification is often avoided by learners even at higher levels so the unnatural:
        The results are above and indicate ...
    instead of the preferable:
        The results above indicate ...
  2. Adverb post-modifiers concern only a few common enough adverbs and are also quite easy to tackle.
    The small complication in this area is that fact that some words can be adverbial and adjectival so, while we can have:
        The toilet downstairs
        The downstairs toilet
    we cannot have
        *The ahead road
    instead of
        The road ahead
  3. The any-, some-, no-, every- set of pronouns can be taken as a discrete area because the rule is clear: all of them are conventionally post-modified (and else may be included at higher levels).
    Here, the complication to make clear is that the adjective which post-modifies the pronoun must describe a permanent quality so, for example,
        Somebody strange came to the door
    is acceptable, but
        *Somebody tired came to the door
    is not.
    See below for more.
  4. Clausal post-modification needs handling with relative clauses and requires a staged approach.  Again, mixing up the types will just confuse and bewilder your learners.
    Here, the complication is that first languages such as Korean, which do not have a relative clause structure make it difficult for their speakers to learn how relative clauses are constructed in English.  Once learned, however, they may be overused so learners may prefer:
        The restaurant which was destroyed in the fire
        The restaurant destroyed in the fire
    because that is how they have been told English post-modifies nouns.  It is important to be clear that relative clauses are not the only way to post-modify a noun phrase.
    Non-finite clauses, in particular, can be a mysterious area for many learners and need handling in small chunks.
    The aspectual nature of non-finite post-modification is not paralleled in many languages so the presentation needs to make it clear that:
    1. -ing participles refer to continuous, iterative or progressive states or events so we have, e.g.:
          The old man with the dog playing the piano on Saturday nights is really talented (iterative)
          The girl singing now is terrible (progressive)
          The man living on the corner is very helpful to his neighbours (continuous)
      and can refer to the future as in, e.g.:
          The film coming to the cinema soon is one to miss (prospective)
    2. past participle forms relate two events or states in time, e.g.:
          The furniture broken in the fight was replaced (pre-past related to past)
          The man hurt in the fight is in hospital (past related to present)
          The work done today will be appreciated (present related to future)
    3. to-infinitive forms are usually prospective, even when they are set in the past or the future, so we have, e.g.:
          The place to go first is the pub on the corner (prospective from the present)
          The place to visit was the theatre at Epidaurus (prospective in the past)
          The book to read will be his next novel (prospective in the future)
  5. Other adjectival post-modification is comparatively rare and there are a number of exceptional cases (see the references to oddballs above).  This area may be best handled on a case-by-case basis, dealing with them as they occur in texts or have been noticed.
    The exception to this is the regularity of -ible and -able adjectives used this way as in, e.g.:
        The only problem discernible was the time factor
        The men expendable were sent out first
        All the land obtainable had been bought

    This will not work with all these adjective forms.

any-, some-, no-, every-

Presenting the area isn't hard; that can be done via a dialogue or a noticing exercise such as:

Look at these conversations.  What do you notice about the words in red?
I need something heavy to hold this down.
I'll find a
big rock.
We need something exciting to start the show.
What about this?  It's a
great song. 
I like the shoes but do you have anything cheaper?
The colour is
different but this is a cheaper pair.
Have we packed everything important?  We haven't forgotten anything essential, have we?
No, I don't think so.  We used the
long list of important things.  The first-day stuff is at the top.
Did you do anything exciting on your last holiday?
Nothing very thrilling but we went for lots of long swims and did some good climbing in the mountains.
Is anybody interesting at the party?
Not really.  I have met some really boring people but there was someone fascinating that you should meet.  It's the tall woman in the corner.

Three things should come out of this:

Controlled practice can involve sentence re-ordering tasks, gap fill, sentence completion tasks and so on.

Slightly less controlled practice can have learners making true sentences about their environment from adjectives you (or they) supply.  For example:

new + class: there's somebody new in the class
old + refrigerator: there's nothing old in the fridge
attractive + wall: there's something attractive on the wall
This can be extended to guessing games:
I'm thinking of something beautiful in the garden, There's nothing useful in what I'm thinking about

To raise awareness of the limitation to permanent states, learners can be invited to notice why, for example, of the following pairs of sentences, only one is acceptable:


prepositional phrase building

Starting with a simple sentence, learners can build post-modification with prompts from you:

There was a vase. | where?
There was a vase in the corner |
which corner?
There was a vase in the corner of the dining room |
where exactly?
There was a vase in the corner of the dining room by the door I
when did you see it?
There was a vase in the corner of the dining room by the door yesterday evening

and so on with a different starter sentence.

The same can be done with adverb post-modifiers, of course, and there's a much more limited set to choose from.


complex post-modification

At higher levels, noticing first, some text analysis and then a task to draft, write, improve and polish a text of your own can be effective and constructive.  It needn't be a long text because post-modification is useful for compressing data.

Underline the ways the nouns are modified by the words following them.
Brighton is now an official city proper with everything essential for a holiday for all the family.  The Pavilion built by a king of England in the central square of the town is renowned worldwide for its art deco style.
The Lanes running behind the seafront have antique shops aplenty with nothing missing for the connoisseur of everything old and beautiful.
The countryside nearby is also spectacular.
Enjoy a day of sightseeing, shopping and food of great quality.
Now write a similar text about a town in your country that you know well.  Try to modify the nouns in the same kinds of way.

There is a short test on some of this.

Related guides
modification: essentials the general, elementary introduction to the area of modification
noun modification an overview of noun modification
noun pre-modification a sister guide to the other sort of noun modification
finite and non-finite forms for more on finite and non-finite verbs and clauses
relative clauses for more on two special types of modification
relative adverbs
constituents of phrases for more on how we work out what belongs where
sentence stress for more about tone units
adjectives the dedicated guide to this word class
prepositional phrases for more on how these post-modify clauses of all kinds

Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney NSW: NCELTR
Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman