Modification (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A dog begging for cake - example of the adjective "hungry" modifying the noun "dog"
In the phrase "hungry dog," the adjective hungry modifies the noun dog. (Suzanne Tucker/Getty Images)

Modification is a syntactic construction in which one grammatical element (e.g., a noun) is accompanied (or modified) by another (e.g., an adjective). The first grammatical element is called the head (or headword). The accompanying element is called a modifier.

To determine if a word or phrase is a modifier, one of the easiest tests is to see if the larger segment (phrase, sentence, etc.) makes sense without it. If it does, the element you're testing is probably a modifier. If it doesn't make sense without it, it's probably not a modifier.

Modifiers that appear before the headword are called premodifiers. Modifiers that appear after the headword are called postmodifiers. In some cases, modifiers can modify other modifiers as well.

See more specific details and types of modification below. Also see:

Modifier Versus Head

  • "Modifier contrasts with head. If a word or phrase in a construction is its head, it cannot simultaneously be a modifier in that construction. But, . . . an adjective, for example, may be a head of one phrase and simultaneously a modifier in a different phrase. In very hot soup, for example, hot is the head of the adjective phrase very hot (modified by very) and simultaneously the modifier of the noun soup."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Optional Syntactic Functions

  • "[Modification] is an 'optional' syntactic function accomplished within phrases and clauses. If an element is not required in order to complete the thought expressed by a phrase or clause, it is probably a modifier. You might think of modification as a 'macro-function' in that it covers a very wide range of possible semantic notions, from various kinds of adverbial functions to nominal modification (size, shape, color, value, etc.)"
    (Thomas E. Payne, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Length and Location of Modifiers

  • "Modifiers can be quite large and complex, and they need not occur immediately next to their heads. In the sentence The women who had volunteered for the beauty contest climbed giggling onto the stage, the head women is modified both by the relative clause who had volunteered for the beauty contest and by the adjective giggling, the second of which is separated from its head by the verb climbed."
    (R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., ed. by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

Word Combinations

  • "Word combination often leads to strings of adjectives and attributive nouns, a style that began in Time magazine in the 1920s, with the aim of providing impact and 'color.' They may be relatively short (London-born disc jockey Ray Golding . . .) or long enough to become self-parodies, either pre-modifying a name (silver-haired, paunchy lothario, Francesco Tebaldi . . .) or post-modifying it (Zsa Zsa Gabor, seventyish, eight-time-married, Hungarian-born celebrity . . .)."
    (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)

Modification and Possession

  • "[T]he two types of construction, attributive modification, and (inalienable) possession, share the property of being noun-headed but are otherwise different in type. This difference is generally reflected in the morphosyntax of the constructions. Attributive modification is normally expressed by a dedicated lexical class of adjectives whose members may show special morphosyntax, specifically agreement in features such as gender, number, or case."
    (Irina Nikolaeva and Andrew Spencer, "Possession and Modification--A Perspective From Canonical Typology." Canonical Morphology and Syntax, ed. by Dunstan Brown, Marina Chumakina, and Greville G. Corbett. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Types of Modification

  • "I suggest that there are the following types [of modification] in nominal phrase premodification. . . .
    (a) Modifying the information given in the phrase. (i) Amplifying modification. The modifier amplifies the reader's interpretation of the phrase; that is, it adds information to it; for example, in 'thick slow hug of the bush,' thick amplifies slow by adding its causation; in 'a nice warm room,' WARMTH is added to ROOM. . . . (ii) Specifying modification. The modifier makes specific some information that is given vaguely elsewhere; for example, 'a good thick layer.' . . . (iii) Intensifying and weakening modification. The modifier affects the degree of information given elsewhere; that is, it instructs the hearer to interpret another word more strongly (for example, 'a nice warm room'), or more weakly (for example, 'mere decoration,' and the patronising use of 'a dear little thing.') . . .
    (b) Modifying the situation. The modifier does not relate to the informational content at all, but affects the discourse situation--the relation between speaker and hearer; for example, 'awesome goodie bags' (both modifiers modify the situation towards informality). . . .
    (c) Modifying the act of ascribing information; for example, 'his former Labour-voting parents.' Words are sometimes ambivalent, carrying two types at once: nice is intensifying in 'a nice warm room,' but is also amplifying--'a nice warm room.'"
    (Jim Feist, Premodifiers in English: Their Structure and Significance. Cambridge University Press, 2012)