premodifier (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Jim Feist, Premodifiers in English: Their Structure and Significance (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

In English grammar, a premodifier is a modifier that precedes the head of a noun phrase.

Most often, premodifiers are adjectives ("a beautiful day"), participles ("broken heart"), or other nouns ("time management"). Premodifers are sometimes referred to as epithets.

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).

Examples and Observations

  • The next morning, Lonsdale was spotted coming out of a nearby house.
  • "Indeed, it is a commonplace observation that a truly intelligent youth is aided but little by the average college education."
    (H.L. Mencken)
  • We have enjoyed some extremely varied and consistently excellent performances at this theater.
  • "The road deteriorated until it resembled a casually discarded trail of large and sharp stones.
  • "The problem is not just our junkie-like behavior; it is that there is another energy junkie in the neighborhood with a growing habit—China."
    (Ed Schultz, Killer Politics: How Big Money and Bad Politics Are Destroying the Great American Middle Class. Hyperion, 2010)
  • "Younkers was the most elegant, up-to-the-minute, briskly efficient, satisfyingly urbane place in Iowa."
    (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Broadway Books, 2006)

Four Major Types of Premodifiers

"There are four major structural types of premodification in English:

- general adjective: big pillow, new pants, official negotiations, political isolation
- -ed participial modifier: restricted area, improved growth, fixed volume, established tradition
- -ing participial modifier: flashing lights, growing problem, exhausting task
- noun: staff room, pencil case, market forces, maturation period

In addition, . . . determiners, genitives, and numerals precede the head and modifiers, and help to specify the reference of noun phrases.

"Premodifiers are condensed structures. They use fewer words than postmodifiers to convey roughly the same information. Most adjectival and participial premodifiers can be rephrased as a longer, postmodifying relative clause . . .." (Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)

Premodifiers and Compounds

"Premodifying elements in prehead position are often used as qualifiers, which means that they restrict the reference of the head of the noun phrase to a subset of the things it denotes. In many cases the resultant expression is fairly permanent, and is used regularly. Eventually the meaning of the combined expression may differ from the meaning that is derivable from the meaning of its constituents. In this case the term compound or nominal compound is often used. . . .

(29) lighthouse—light music
(30) software—soft option
(31) hothouse—hot house
(32) blackbird—black bird
(33) darkroom—dark room

The first element in these examples is always the compound which is contrasted to the second element that is not usually regarded as a compound. Compounds tend to have a primary stress on the first element, whereas noun phrase combinations are written as two words." (Andreas H. Jucker, Social Stylistics: Syntactic Variation in British Newspapers. Mouton de Gruyter, 1992)

The Problem of Stacking: Excessive Premodification

"A particularly disturbing feature of scientific writing is excessive 'premodification'—the piling up of adjectives, or words being used adjectivally, in front of a noun:

a mobile hopper fed compressed air operated grit blasting machine.

. . . As a general rule, we recognize that listeners find it difficult to cope with the delivery of so many qualifications before the main noun. So we put some of our modifiers before it, and most of them after it. . . .

a mobile grit-blasting machine, fed from a hopper and operated by compressed air"

(John Kirkman, Good Style: Writing For Science And Technology, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)