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Concourse 2

Pre-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 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:

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:

If you have followed the guide to adjectives (linked in the list of related guides at the end), 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.


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 or noun adjunct).  A simple test is to ask whether the word can be modified with very or made comparative with more or -er.

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:


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

the howling wind  

There are two sorts of these.

-ing participles

Under the image above we have:
    the howling wind
and it looks like howling is acting as a simple adjective.  There are two problems with that analysis.

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.
It is worth noting here that many adjectives with negative prefixes can only be used as adjectives because no parallel verb is available.  We can have, for example:
    The circus acts were exciting
    The children were excited by the circus acts
    The circus acts were unexciting
but not
    *The circus acts unexcited the children

the concept of permanence


Compare these:

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
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
    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, 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
But we cannot allow, e.g.:
    *a started war
    *a begun job

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

The passive is usually 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
unless they are pre-modified with an adverb as we saw above.


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.

Try a short test on this.

Related guides
modification: essentials the general, elementary introduction to the area of modification
noun modification an overview of noun modification
noun post-modification a sister 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 post-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