Postmodifiers in English Grammar

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In English grammar, a postmodifier is a modifier that follows the word or phrase it limits or qualifies. Modification by a postmodifier is called postmodification

As discussed below, there are many different types of postmodifiers, but the most common are prepositional phrases and relative clauses.

As noted by Douglas Biber et al., "Premodifiers and postmodifiers are distributed in the same way across registers: rare in conversation, very common in informational writing" (Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, 2002). Guerra and Insua point out that, in general, "postmodifiers are longer than premodifiers, which underlines the adequacy of end-weight" ("Enlarging Noun Phrases Little by Little" in A Mosaic of Corpus Linguistics, 2010).

Examples and Observations

  • The woman in the window seat asked the flight attendant for two little bottles of white wine.
  • Carter Hallam was a jolly, easy-going fellow whom everybody knew and everybody liked.
  • In a farm-house in Sussex are preserved two skulls from Hastings Priory.
  • I was born in a farmhouse that stood on a pretty heath in Sussex.
  • The decision to erect a statue was made on the basis of a vote taken by a show of hands in the assembly.
  • We needed a boat big enough to haul supplies to the campsite.
  • Sarah's office was ransacked by persons unknown.​

Four Types of Postmodification

"Postmodification can be one of four types:

  • a preposition with a further nominal group (a prepositional phrase): the boy in the garden...;
  • a non-finite clause: the boy walking down the road...;
  • a dependent clause which may be introduced by a relative pronoun or simply attached directly to the nominal it modifies: the who was walking...;
  • occasionally, an adjective:...and other things interesting."

(David Crystal, Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English. Cambridge University Press, 1976)

Three Major Types of Non-Finite Postmodifying Clauses

"There are three major types of non-finite postmodifying clauses: ing-clauses, ed-clauses, and to-clauses. The first two types are also called participle clauses, and the third is also called an infinitive clause or a to-infinitive clause.

"Participle clauses as postmodifiers always have subject gap positions. They can often be paraphrased as a relative clause:

  • a letter written by a member of the public (ACAD)
  • compare: a letter which has been written by a member of the public
  • young families attending the local clinic (NEWS)
  • compare: families who are attending the local clinic

"In contrast, to-clause postmodifiers can have either subject or non-subject gaps:

  • Subject gap: I haven't got friends to beat him up though (CONV)
  • Compare: Friends will beat him up
  • Non-subject gap:
    • I had a little bit to eat (CONV) direct object: I ate a little bit>
    • I'll remember which way to go (CONV) direction adverbial: I can go that way
    • Get angry! We've both got a lot to be angry about. (FICT) complement of preposition: We are angry about a lot
  • "As these examples show. most non-finite clauses do not have a stated subject. However, with to-clauses, the subject is sometimes expressed in a for- phrase: 
    • Really now is the time for you to try and go."

(Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)

Postmodification PPs and NPs

"In postmodification there is in principle no limit to the length of NPs. The occurrence of subordinate PPs is very common, and it is important to distinguish cases like:

  • (25) (the girl (by the table (with the carved legs)))
  • (26) (the girl (by the table (with the sunburnt legs))).

"In (25) one PP postmodifies girl, and the other PP is subordinate to it, postmodifying table. In (26), however, both PPs postmodify girl--it is the legs of the girl, not the legs of the table, that we are discussing."

(Geoffrey Leech, Margaret Deuchar, and Robert Hoogenraad, English Grammar for Today: A New Introduction, 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)