logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Pre-modification of noun phrases


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

Pre-modification of noun phrases is a way of adding more information.  There are a number of ways we can do this in English.


Pre-modifying adjectives

Most students of English will be happy with this, the easiest form: pre-modification with adjectives.  There are, however, some issues.  As our examples, we'll use:

  • the delicious meal
  • the vicious dog
  • the ugly building

It is straightforward enough to see that all these are attributive adjective use and could be rearranged to use the adjective predicatively (i.e., as a post-modifier) so we can get:

  • the meal was delicious
  • the dog is vicious
  • the building looks ugly

If you have followed the guide to adjectives, you'll know that most (but not all) adjectives can be used in both ways.  Now try to use the following predicative adjectives to pre-modify the noun and you'll discover the problem.  Click here when you see it.

  • the meal was not delicious
  • the dog is so vicious
  • the building looks ugly


Pre-modifying nouns

You will know if you have followed the guide to adjectives that we need to distinguish between an adjective proper (sometimes called an epithet) and a noun being used adjectivally (often called a classifier).  A simple test is to ask whether the word can be modified with very or made comparative with more or -er.

  • We can have a fast car, a faster car and a very fast car so fast is a pre-modifying epithet or adjective proper.
  • We can have a sports car but not *a sportser car or *a very sports car so the word sports is a noun pre-modifier or classifier, not an adjective.

The relationship between the two nouns is often very close and they may better be considered simply compound nouns but that is not always the case.  We need to consider the stress patterns:

  • Compound nouns are generally stressed on the first item because they are conventionally considered single concepts so we get, e.g., glass house, ink jet, sports car, door key etc.  All of those could, incidentally be joined with a hyphen or written as one word.
  • When the first noun is acting as a classifier, however, in less common combinations, the stress remains on the noun being modified so we have, e.g., a software developer, a mountain refuge, a garden seat etc.
    (As a noun-noun combination becomes increasingly common, the stress will slowly slide to the first item.  For example, what began as a hard drive has become a hard drive and a wind turbine is slowly becoming a wind turbine etc.)


The genitive 's pre-modifier

The genitive 's is straightforward usually and causes few problems so Peter's car, the man's cottage, the sea's power etc. are readily understood.
There are times when the situation is not so clear.  Consider these four phrases and their meanings.
Click here when you have done that.

  1. this is a young man's job
  2. there's a gardener's hut over there
  3. this is the young man's job
  4. she rides an old man's bicycle


Participle pre-modifiers

There are two sorts of these.

-ing participles

For the graphic above we could have, e.g., the howling wind which implies that it's acting as a simple adjective.  There are two problems with that analysis.

  • If we try to use the 'adjective' predicatively, we get something like the wind is howling and that's a progressive tense aspect, not an adjectival use.
  • We can't have *the very howling wind or the more howling wind so the word is not functioning at all as an adjective in the proper sense.

Now consider:

  1. She has a number of irritating habits
  2. She has a number of very irritating habits
  3. That's a shocking idea
  4. That's the most shocking idea I've heard today

All of these are quite acceptable so here the words shocking and irritating are functioning as normal adjectives, not as participles per se.  They are, of course, strongly associated with their verb forms so are participial adjectives.

the concept of permanence


Compare these:

  • the grinning skull
  • The Laughing Cavalier
  • the grinning man
  • the laughing group of students
  • the reassuring person
  • the reassuring conversation

Why are some more acceptable than others?  Click here when you have an idea.

-ed participles

(The term -ed participles applies to forms such as completed as well as to irregular but parallel forms such as spoken.)

the concept of permanence applies here, too.

We can have, e.g.,
his forced laugh, her broken shoes, an accomplished performance, their excited shouting, my astonished reaction etc.
These attributes are permanently assigned to the nouns either because they are fixed in time or fixed in space.  In all the examples, the attribute applies to a single incidence and is fixed in time:
The laugh was forced; the shoes were broken; the performance was accomplished; the shouting was exited and my reaction was astonished.
But we cannot have, e.g.,
*an arrived man, *a begun job, *a started war etc. because the attributes cannot be permanently ascribed to the noun.
As another example, note that a worn dress refers to its permanent condition not the fact that someone is temporarily wearing it.

active and passive

-ed particles are used both actively (as in, e.g., I have spoken to him) and passively (as in e.g., The job has been finished).

This is a key distinction because using an active particle as a pre-modifier is quite rare and subject to some constraints.
If we want to use an active -ed particle attributively for a temporary state it must be pre-modified so, e.g.:
We can allow:
    a recently started war
    a newly begun job
    a freshly arrived man
But we cannot allow, e.g.:
    *a started war
    *a begun job
    *an arrived man

Passively, the -ed particle is much more frequently used and not subject to so many constraints so we can have any of the following whether the attribute is permanent or temporarily applied:
a broken vase, an insulted participant, a forgotten treasure, an angered tiger, a disappointed lover, a chewed bone etc.

(The passive is frequently used to refer to a permanent state and that is why the following are not usually acceptable:
*a constructed dam, *a mentioned person, *a named baby)


Teaching implications

Mostly, teaching implications stem from the need for the teacher to be aware of the complications of noun pre-modifiers and to make sure that presentation, practice and correction is consistent and principled.
Your final task is to review the analysis above and pick out the three most important ideas that you need to be aware of in the classroom and when you are reviewing, planning or correcting.
Click here when you have done that.

You may have focused on other important distinctions, of course.

Related guides
noun post-modification a guide to the ways nouns can be modified by what follows them 
adverb modifiers a guide to intensifiers including emphasisers, amplifiers, downtoners and approximators
adverbials a guide explaining adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
phrase structure a guide to how phrases are constructed
adjectives the guide to follow if terms such as epithet and classifier are mysterious
prepositional phrases a guide dedicated to a major way of modifying verb and noun phrases
relative pronoun clauses a guide to a common way to modify
a lesson a link to a lesson for higher-level learners in this area (new tab or window)
syntax index for links to other related areas