Premodifiers in 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 or word that determines the meaning of a phrase. Premodifiers are most often adjectives, participles, and nouns. When used as an adjective to characterize a person or thing, this part of speech is also referred to as an epithet.

Premodifiers are written more often than spoken. As noted by Douglas Biber et. al. in Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, "Premodifiers and postmodifiers are distributed in the same way across registers: rare in conversation, very common in informational writing," (Biber 2002). Learn more about and see examples of premodifiers here.

Understanding Premodifiers

To understand premodifiers, study the types that you might encounter and how each is used. Be sure to reference plenty of examples.

Types of Premodifiers

Biber categorized premodifiers into four main groups and commented on the use of other parts of speech to make premodifiers more precise. "There are four major structural types of premodification in English:

  • adjective: big pillow, new pants, official negotiations, political isolation
  • -ed participial: restricted area, improved growth, fixed volume, established tradition
  • -ing participial: flashing lights, a growing problem, an 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."

Biber also noted that premodifiers are efficient, saying, "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," (Biber 2002).

Premodifiers and Compounds

Andreas H. Jucker in his book Social Stylistics: Syntactic Variation in British Newspapers defined the relationship between premodifiers and compounds as follows.

"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.

lighthouse—light music
software—soft option
hothouse—hot house
blackbird—black bird
darkroom—dark room

The first element [e.g. software] in these examples is always the compound, which is contrasted to the second element [e.g. soft option] that is not usually regarded as a compound. Compounds tend to have primary stress on the first element, whereas noun phrase combinations are written as two words," (Jucker 1992).

Examples of Premodifiers

Take a look at these examples of premodifiers, some from literature and some not, to better understand the applications of this useful part of speech.

  • 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," (Schultz 2010).
  • "Younkers was the most elegant, up-to-the-minute, briskly efficient, satisfyingly urbane place in Iowa," (Bryson 2006).

Excessive Premodification

Does the phrase "too much of a good thing" apply to premodifiers? See what John Kirkman, author of Good Style: Writing For Science And Technology, has to say about overusing premodification and how to fix it.

"A particularly disturbing feature of scientific writing is excessive premodification or 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. [where machine is the head noun]

... 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,"(Kirkman 2005).

Sources

  • Biber, Douglas, et al. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson Education, 2006.
  • Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: a Memoir. Broadway Books, 2007.
  • Jucker, Andreas H. Social Stylistics: Syntactic Variation in British Newspapers. Mouton De Gruyter, 1992.
  • Kirkman, John. Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology. 2nd ed., Taylor and Francis, 2013.
  • Schultz, Ed. Killer Politics: How Big Money and Bad Politics Are Destroying the Great American Middle Class. Hyperion, 2010.