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Concourse 2

Modification: an overview


This guide pulls together parts from various other guides to give you an overview of what modification is and how it works with various word classes and phrase types.
This guide is linked from both the in-service and the initial plus sections of the site and there's a reason for that:
For people on or who have recently completed initial training courses, this may be all you want to know for now.
For more experienced teachers considering going on to or currently taking further training, this provides a road map of the area from which you can select where to go to learn more.
For more information on specific areas, refer to the list of links to related guides at the end.


What is modification and why is it important?

Modification involves changes and refinements to items in the language.  For example, this is a more or less unmodified sentence:
    The man bought the house
There's nothing grammatically or communicatively wrong with this sentence, of course, because it is well formed and tells the reader / hearer what happened and who did what to what.  However, it lacks detail and is much less effective than, for example:
    The young man with the flashy car immediately bought the woman's old house on the corner of our street.
The second sentence contains a good deal of modification to change and refine the data.  We now know:

  1. what sort of man (young)
  2. something about the man (with the flashy car)
  3. how he bought (immediately)
  4. whose house (the woman's)
  5. what sort of house (old)
  6. where the house is (on the corner)
  7. of what (our street)

and by a process of quite simple modification, we have added seven new pieces of information to the basic sentence.
How we do that and a good deal more is the subject of this guide.

We said above that the initial sentence was more or less unmodified and that is true because, in fact, there are three modifications even in that very basic sentence:

This guide will deal with the sorts of modifications set out in a. to g. above rather than concern itself with determiners and verb inflexions.


A note about terminology

There is a distinction between the terms qualifier and modifier which we should pause to get clear:

  1. A modifier is any item which adds information to the head of a phrase so, for example:
    1. ancient Greek
      contains a pre-modifying adjective
    2. many people
      contains a pre-modifying quantifier
    3. the woman in the hat
      contains a post-modifying prepositional phrase
    4. the really cheap option
      contains both a pre-modifying adverb and a pre-modifying adjective
    5. the people involved
      contains a post-modifying adjective
  2. A qualifier is an item which adds information to the head of a noun phrase only so, for example:
    1. her money
      contains a pre-modifying qualifier possessive determiner
    2. the people from that department
      contains a pre-modifying definite article determiner and a post-modifying prepositional phrase.

To complicate matters slightly, however, functional grammarians (following Halliday) reserve the term modifier for pre-modifying elements and use the term qualifier only for post-modifying elements.


Modifying nouns

an independent dog on the road  

The simplest way to modify a noun is to use an adjective, of course, and we can usually do that two ways:

  1. Attributively
    Usually that means placing the adjective before the noun with no intervening verb so we have
        The old house
        The ridiculous idea
        The current president

    Sometimes, with certain adjectives, an attributive use may follow the noun with no intervening verb so we can have:
        The newspaper proper
        The officer concerned
        The president elect

  2. Predicatively
    This means that the noun is the subject of the sentence and the adjective follows in the predicate, after a verb, as in:
        The house seemed cosy
        The people became frightened
        The door is blue


Nouns can also be modified by placing items before them which are not adjectives per se but which function in similar ways.  In older analyses, these were often explicitly called adjectives as in, for example, possessive adjectives and so on.  More modern analyses call these determiners of one kind or another because they determine how the hearer / reader perceives the noun phrase.
For example:

a house vs. the house
this / that / these those house(s)
some / a few / many / most houses
a row / an avenue / a cluster etc. of houses
which houses / whose houses etc.
our houses / their houses / my house etc.

The other way to modify nouns is more complex and involves post-modifying the noun.  Four important ways to do this are:

prepositional phrases
the house on the corner
the man with the red jacket
the woman in the office
the house near the station
a city in the north

relative pronoun clauses
the house which we lived in
the man whose car was damaged
the woman who bought the tickets
the house that stands near the station

relative adverb clauses
the place where we ate
the day when we met
the reason why she spoke up
that was how we arrived at the figure
non-finite clauses (-ing clauses or infinitive clauses)
the pub standing near the river
the best place to see the action


Rarely, a noun phrase may be modified by an adverb as in, for example:
    That was quite a party
    It was rather a mess
    She is such a fool


Modifying verbs

carefully going down  

The most obvious way to modify a verb is to use an adverb as in the example above, where there are two: carefully and down.  Both words alter how we see, i.e., modify, the verb go.
There is a distinction between an adverb and an adverbial, however, which is explained in more detail elsewhere.  Briefly, any word or phrase that alters how we see a verb is an adverbial and that includes the word class of adverbs.  Although all adverbs are adverbials, not all adverbials are adverbs.
Here, we will consider the two major types only.  There is much more detail in the guides linked at the end.

  1. Adverbs as adverbials:
    1. Adverbs of manner, answering the question 'How?'
      so we get, e.g.
          He is cycling quickly
          She is thinking hard
          The children are waiting patiently

    2. Adverbs of place, answering the question 'Where?'
      so we get, e.g.
          They are waiting outside
          I walked everywhere

    3. Adverbs of time, answering the question 'When?' or 'How often?'
      so we get, e.g.
          They are enjoying it now
          She is going home tomorrow
          The boss sometimes arrives late

    4. Adverbs of degree, answering the question 'How much?'
      so we get, e.g.
          She enjoyed it enormously
          I hated it intensely


As you can see from these examples, not all adverbs end in -ly (although hundreds do) and it's also worth noting that not all words which end in -ly are adverbs so, for example, friendly looks like an adverb but is actually an adjective.  There is a list of over 100 of these in the guide to adjectives, linked below.

  1. Other items as adverbials:
    1. Manner:
      1. Clauses, e.g.:
            Smiling happily, he collected the money
      2. Prepositional phrases, e.g.:
            They spoke in Italian
            With a grin, he told her the story
    2. Place:
      1. Clauses, e.g.:
            I ate well while I was in Italy
      2. Noun phrases, e.g.:
            She stayed a week
      3. Prepositional phrases, e.g.:
            She climbed down the mountain
    3. Time:
      1. Clauses, e.g.:
            She arrived before everyone else
      2. Noun phrases, e.g.:
            They came last year
      3. Prepositional phrases, e.g.:
            The post arrived in the morning
    4. Reason:
      1. Clauses, e.g.:
            They did it because I asked
      2. Infinitive clauses, e.g.:
            They are trying to get a medal


Modifying adverbs

climbing extremely skilfully  

Adverbs themselves may, of course, be modified in a number of ways, one of which is exemplified above and called an intensifier because it alters the strength of the adverb skilfully.  When an adverb modifies another, it must function as an intensifier.  There are two essential forms of intensifying adverbs:

  1. Amplifiers, which make the adverb stronger.  For example:
        It was very carefully done
        She arrived extremely late
        They argued totally stupidly
        She climbed very quickly
  2. Emphasisers which often express the speaker / writer's view.  For example:
        That was simply deliciously cooked
        He drove plainly insanely
        She spoke even more loudly
  3. Downtoners, which diminish the strength of the adverb.  For example:
        It was quite well done
        She rather stupidly got on the wrong train
        She spoke fairly excitedly
        The worked relatively slowly

The term intensifier is not, incidentally, synonymous with amplifier because it can also refer to a downtoner.

Adverbs in a phrasal verb are rarely modified at all because the convention is to modify the whole of the verb phrase so we prefer:
    He quickly grew up
rather than:
    *He grew quickly up
    He immediately looked up the word
rather than:
    *He looked immediately up the word
although, rarely, we may allow something like:
    She spoke right out


Modifying adjectives

she became volcanically angry  

The normal way to modify an adjective is with an adverb and, again, the usual categorisation is of various forms of intensifiers which affect the strength of the adjective one way or another.

  1. Amplifiers which increase the power of the adjective:
        That was incredibly stupid
        She was very happy
        Her dog was very friendly
        The house was dreadfully dilapidated
  2. Downtoners which reduce the power of the adjective:
        That was rather silly
        She was slightly confident
        The animal was reasonably tame
  3. Viewpoint adverbs, expressing the scope of the adjective, are a rarer class:
        This is technically possible
        She was morally unfit to govern
        They were financially independent
  4. Attitudinal adverbs express the speaker / writer's view.  For example:
        He is obviously right
        She is definitely wrong
        That is patently untrue
        This is clearly inaccurate

A small class of adverb modifiers for adjectives needs special attention:

always follows the adjective it modifies so we can have, for example:
    The food was hot enough
but not
    *The food was enough hot
is always an intensifier and often followed by a clause implying a consequence:
    The food was too hot to eat
    We had too little money for the fare
is also an intensifier which is almost always followed by a that- consequence clause (which may be implied rather than stated):
    It was so good that I had three helpings
    The weather was so beautiful that we stayed another week
a small class of constrained adverb modifies
these modifiers are confined to certain adjectives and can be learned and taught as fixed expressions or chunks of language.  For example:
    The dog was fast / sound asleep
    The ship was hard aground
    He is stone deaf
    The food was stone cold


Modifying prepositional phrases

right on the edge of the cliff  

Some intensifying adverbs can modify prepositional phrases.  For example:
    She is dead against the idea
    They are nearly over the worst
    It is just next to the post office, directly opposite the station
    They live right by the river
    Was nearly after dark when they arrived
    His explanation went completely over my head
    They were very nearly on time
    It was way over my head
    The stone went clean through the window
    The meeting started shortly after 6 o'clock.
    The man spoke purely in his own interests.
    They acted solely to their own advantage
    That's a comment very much out of order here.
    We looked all over the town for a replacement.

That's almost a complete list, by the way.

Now use the menu below to go to any area that interests you to learn more.

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
determiners for an analysis of how determiners operate with various types of nouns
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 noun phrases
relative adverb clauses the other common way to modify noun phrases
adverbs a guide focusing on a particular type of adverbial
adverbials a guide explaining adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
adjectives the guide to this word class
syntax index for links to other related areas