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Concourse 2

Noun modification: an overview


If the area of modification is wholly new to you, you may like to look at the essential guide to types of modification.
This guide only concerns how we modify nouns to make more complex noun phrases.  For more detail, see the links at the end.

Consider this phrase:
    The old
house with a thatched roof

It's clear that the word house is being modified by the bits in black and brown.  It's also pretty easy to distinguish between
    pre-modification (the old) and
    post-modification (with a thatched roof).

We can use this noun phrase as the subject or object of the verb:
    The old house with a thatched roof stood here
    I like
the old house with a thatched roof
How this is achieved in English is a key area in both producing coherent texts and understanding texts.  Here we are concerned with how simple nouns become complex nominalisations.  And it isn't always as easy as that.

In what follows, we are looking at how the Head of a phrase may be modified by a pre-Head and a post-Head.  For more, try the guide to phrase structure linked in the list of related guides at the end.


A rule of thumb

This is not an absolute rules and exceptions are noted in the guide, especially, to post-modification of nouns, linked below.  However, there are two important differences between pre- and post-modification of nouns worth noting.

  1. Pre-modification of nouns and noun phrases is usually non-restrictive (or non-defining) so, for example:
        The gorgeous flowers
    tells us something about the flowers but not which flowers we intend to single out.  However,
        The flowers in the vase in the kitchen
    tells us nothing about the flowers themselves in terms of appearance but defines or restricts them very precisely and implies that there are other flowers with which we are not concerned.
    Equally, for example:
        The table in the corner
    tells us precisely which table is being referred to but
        A corner table
    simply tells us what sort of table it is and there may be lots of corner tables in the vicinity.
  2. Pre-modification is the structure of choice when we are referring to a permanent quality of something or someone so, for example:
        A vegetarian meal
    can also be expressed, but less naturally, as:
        The meal is vegetarian
    However, temporary states are usually signalled by post-modification as in, e.g.:
        The meal is cooked
    rather than as
        *The cooked meal

There is a little more about this in the guide to adjectives, linked below.



See if you can figure out what sorts of words are being used to pre-modify a noun in this phrase:
The fourteen stupid school boys

Click when you have decided.

Now try something slightly tougher.  Can you figure out what's going on in this phrase?

All twenty or so anomalous and puzzling experimental results ...

Click here when you have.



Post-modification adds more detail again to the noun phrase.  Unlike pre-modification, post-modification tends to be much more complicated (sometimes impenetrably so with certain writers).  Here's an example.  Can you identify and classify the post-modification items?

That bicycle which you bought from the man you met in the pub in the High Street.

Click here when you have an answer.


Combining pre- and post-modification

It's clear that we often use both forms of modification at the same time so we might get something like this:

Further, more detailed, information about why these changes are being proposed will be available on the consultation website from Friday 13 March, ahead of the planned commencement of the consultation on Monday 16 March.

Can you unpack what is happening here?  Click here when you have an answer.

This is, incidentally, a real sentence sent to staff as part of an email concerning a pension scheme.  Admittedly, they were university staff so may be expected to be able to unpack the meaning.
There are, as you can see, no fewer than nine examples of pre- and post-modification here.  Understanding such sentences is not easy and getting to the core meaning (i.e., Information will be available) means being able to recognise all the modification and know what it's doing.

Here's another example of this kind of thing.

That first expensive, red racing bicycle with the black seat which you bought from the slightly scruffy barman with red hair you met in the cheap and nasty sports pub in the town High Street has been stolen.

That is a slightly unusual (and made up) sentence designed to demonstrate what can happen but, as we saw above, it is not uncommon to find extensive use of pre-and post-modification, especially in technical and academic literature and formal communication.
Helping learners to unpack the phrases and identify the verb and the main noun subjects and objects can be very helpful.  With the sentence above, for example, it is helpful to get learners to try to identify 14 true statements in more simple sentences.  Like this:

1 it is the first bicycle
2 it is expensive
3 it is red
4 it is a racing bicycle
5 it has a black seat
6 he bought it from a man
7 the man was slightly scruffy
8 the man was a barman
9 the man had red hair
10 he met the man in a pub
11 the pub is cheap and nasty
12 the pub is a sports pub
13 the pub is in the High Street
14 the High Street is in the town

Once learners are able to do this, you can reverse the process and give them a number of statements to combine using pre- and post-modification.  For example, can you combine the following into a single complex sentence using pre- and post-modification?
Click here when you have your answer.

the house is new
the house is made of brick
the house is semi-detached
the house belongs to a man
you met the man last week
you met him in the café

Try the short test on all this.

Related guides
noun post-modification a guide to the ways nouns can be modified by what follows them
noun pre-modification a guide to the ways nouns can be modified by what precedes them
adjectives for the in-service guide to adjectives which has more concerning how they modify noun phrases
adverbial intensifiers 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)
syntax index for links to other related areas