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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-modifying noun phrases is a concise and stylistically sophisticated way to add information because:

  1. pre-modifiers use fewer words to convey the same information as longer and more complex relative clauses.  Compare, e.g.:
        The people who arrived late
        The late arrivals
  2. pre-modifying adjectives and classifiers are also concise ways of delivering information.  Compare, e.g.:
        The woman with the red hair
        The red-haired woman
        The shop on the corner
        The corner shop

There are a number of ways we can pre-modify the noun phrase 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 attributively 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.
It is worth recalling here that the structure does not only refer to ownership (which is why we prefer the term genitive to possessive).  For example:
    his father's advice
refers to origin, and
    his father's belief
describes the belief.
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 participles 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

The Laughing Cavalier  

-ing participles

Compare these:

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

-ed / -en participles

(The term -ed /-en participles applies here 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
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
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 / -en participles 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 participle as a pre-modifier is quite rare and subject to some constraints.
If we want to use an active -ed / -en participle 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 / -en participle 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 (and we could have recently, frequently or strangely as modifiers in these cases).

The issues in English with the use of participles of verbs as adjectives is considered in more depth in the guide to adjectives, linked below.


Pre-modification derived from prepositional phrases and adverbs

the middle houses  

A short cut allowed in English but not in many languages involves rephrasing a noun post-modified by a prepositional phrase to one pre-modified by the erstwhile prepositional complement (or object).  So, for example, we can go from:
    The houses in the middle
    The middle houses
in which the noun middle has been converted from its prepositional complement or object role into a classifier (and some might describe it as an ungradable adjective).

There are, however, two restrictions:

  1. Not all prepositions allow this conversion and it is limited to those which are most central in meaning.
    Prepositions such as near, like or close to do not allow this conversion because they are peripheral, lying on the borderline between prepositions and adjectives.  (We can have, for example, comparative and superlative forms such as nearer, more like and closest which central prepositions do not allow.)
    We do not therefore allow:
        The factory near the town
    to convert to
        *The town factory
        The house opposite the park
    to convert to
        *The park house
    with anything like the same meaning.
    We can, however, use the simple central prepositions of place to make the conversions as in, e.g.:
        The house at the corner → The corner house
        The bus from London → The London bus
        The table in the centre → The centre table
        The book on the top → The top book
        The train to Margate → The Margate train

    The list of truly central prepositions is generally confined to: at, from, in, on and to.
  2. The permanent or temporary nature of the relationship and the possibility of movement also plays a role.  We allow, when looking at a photograph:
        The end person
    instead of
        The person at the end
    because the photograph is fixed in time and the person will not move.
    We cannot, however, do this with temporary situations and with items which move around so we do not allow:
        The woman in the corner
    to be converted to
        *The corner woman
    That is not a particularly intuitive restriction.

Some words function as adverbs as well as prepositions.  A few are sometimes used as pre-modifiers of noun phrases, so we get, for example:
    The inside / outside furniture
    The furniture which is used inside / outside
    The above / below items
    The items listed above / below


Specifying the noun

There are guides to determiners and pre-determiners on this site so this section is confined to exemplification only.
Some determiners act to specify, rather than classify, the noun phrase, like this:

These are familiar determiners and may specify:
A member of a specified group of entities:
    A man came in
A particular instance of an entity known to the hearer:
    The man said he was from the phone company
A general reference to a type of entity:
   Ø Tigers are dangerous (zero article)
These point to particular items and simultaneously specify
    these books
    this book
    that book
    this book
interrogatives (which, whose and what)
These are used to form wh-questions:
    Which man did you see?
    What house did he buy?
    Whose car was stolen?
These signal ownership, origin or description as in, respectively:
    His car was stolen
    Your letter has been received
    The government's policy
This is a large group with complex rules of use and includes:
    A few people came
    Less money is available
    Some cars were badly parked
    Much time has been lost



Pre-modification instead of relative pronoun clauses

Language (such as Turkish, Korean, Tamil and Japanese) which do not use relative clauses often rely on pre-modification of nouns to do the same job. So, for example, instead of:
    The house which was destroyed in the fire
we get:
    *The in the fire destroyed house
    *The destroyed in the fire house
Some languages, such as German, which have parallel relative clause structures can also use pre-modification instead of a relative pronoun clause to achieve the same effect, so we might get something like
    The on the wall hanging picture
instead of
    The picture (which is) hanging on the wall

English generally resists this kind of pre-modification and prefers relative pronoun structures.  Occasionally, however, it is possible so we can have either:
    The expenses which were allowed for
    The allowed-for expenses
    The guests who were admitted
    The admitted guests
For teaching purposes we need to be careful with such structures because they are uncommon in English and may lead to an assumption that relative clauses can be replaced with pre-modification in all cases and that will encourage errors such as:
    *My in America cousins
instead of
    My cousins who are in America.

(Relative adverb clauses cannot be converted in this way at all so we do not allow:
    *The we were married church
instead of
    The church where we were married.)


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
determiners for a guide to a specific kind of pre-modification of nouns and noun phrases
articles a guide to a specific type of troublesome determiner
pre-determiners for a guide to how the determiners themselves may be modified
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)
syntax index for links to other, related areas