summative modifier (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

summative modifier
"A summative modifier doesn't repeat a word," says Joseph M. Williams. "It depends on your finding a word that sums up everything that has gone before" (Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 2016). (Alex Belomlinsky/Getty Images)


In English grammar, a summative modifier is a modifier (usually a noun phrase) that appears at the end of a sentence and serves to summarize the idea of the main clause.

The term summative modifier was introduced by Joseph M. Williams in his article "Defining Complexity" (College English, Feb. 1979).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[One] method of connecting the trailing element to the main clause is with a word that restates or sums up what has been said, a technique I am using in the sentence you are reading now."
    (Stephen Wilbers, Keys to Great Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)
  • "One feels that she ought to be sticking round, ministering to her husband, conferring with the cook, feeding the cat, combing and brushing the Pomeranian--in a word, staying put."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934)
  • "For some time it has been a noisy pageant--laughter, gunfire, war whoops, the intoning of sermons, a politician's blast, the cries of love and pain, iron-shod wheels on cobblestones--all in all a terrible racket."
    (Quoted in The Oregon Blue Book, 1997)
  • "Over time, communities of practice produce a common history. They establish a shared repertoire of stories, languages, artifacts, routines, rituals, processes--put simply, a culture."
    (Stewart R Clegg et al., Managing and Organizations, 3rd ed. Sage, 2011)
  • "The headstone stood above seventeen layers of unrecorded East Londoners: cats, rabbits, pigeons, pebbles and rings, all impacted in the heavy clay."
    (Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory. Granta Books, 1997)
  • "The total cost to the country of all the various acts of incompetence and malfeasance in the Harding administration has been put at $2 billion--a sum that goes some way beyond stupendous, particularly bearing in mind that Harding's presidency lasted just twenty-nine months."
    (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)
  • "We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day."
    (Roger Angell, "This Old Man." The New Yorker, February 17, 2014)
  • "The lane climbs up Hart's Hill to a view across Berkshire that could have been a frontispiece for Morton's book--lush, small, irregular fields, black cattle lying in ear-tagged ease, their legs folded, the vegetative green fading with distance into some darker namelessness of colour, patches of woodland, rooks in the air like wheeling black smuts, the light softly diffused, the air somehow afternoon rich and heavy and over-oxygenated, almost cloying--a small-scale, domesticated, inimitable landscape."
    (Joe Bennett, Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English. Simon & Schuster UK, 2006)
  • How to Create a Summative Modifier
    "Here are two sentences that contrast relative clauses and summative modifiers. Notice how the which in the first one feels 'tacked on':
    Economic changes have reduced Russian population growth to less than zero which will have serious social implications.
    Economic changes have reduced Russian population growth to less than zero, a demographic event that will have serious social implications.
    To create a summative modifier, end a grammatically complete segment of a sentence with a comma, . . . find a noun that sums up the substance of the sentence, . . . [and then] continue with a relative clause."
    (Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. Longman, 2003)
  • The Summative Modifier as a Type of Apposition
    "In example 47 [below], the second unit . . . in this kind of apposition, termed a summative modifier by Williams (1979:609), first summarizes the ideas expressed in the first unit and then attributes some characteristic to them. In example 47, the first part of the second unit, a process, provides a very general summary of the activity of decomposition discussed in the first unit; the relative clause following this noun phrase characterizes this process as one that occurs more rapidly in a specific environment.
    (47) These micro-organisms decompose organic matter in the soil and release plant nutrients, a process which occurs particularly rapidly in an oxidised soil under tropical conditions of warmth and humidity. (SEU w.9.6.18)" (Charles F. Meyer, Apposition in Contemporary English. Cambridge University Press, 1992)
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Nordquist, Richard. "summative modifier (grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). summative modifier (grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "summative modifier (grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).