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5.2: Modification

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  • Noun + Noun Phrases

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Consider the following phrases, each consisting of two nouns. How does the meaning of the phrase depend on the relation between the semantic categories represented by the nouns, and how does this relation vary for the different phrases?

    • apple tree
    • apple seed
    • apple pie
    • apple bowl
    • apple sweater
    • apple company
    • apple festival

    In this section, we'll look at another kind of modification in English, noun + noun phrases. This should give you a better idea of how modification works. It also provides a good example of how Hearers often have to rely on the context of a phrase to interpret it.

    Some languages, including English and Japanese from our list of languages, allow phrases consisting of two nouns together, phrases such as apple pie, desk chair, and axe handle. Like simple nouns, these phrases designate categories of things. In each case, the category is a subcategory of the category that is designated by the second noun. That is, an apple pie is a kind of pie, a desk chair is a kind of chair, and an axe handle is a kind of handle. But how is an apple pie different from a pie and a desk chair different from a chair?

    Let's start our consideration of noun + noun phrases with a phrase which may be unfamiliar to you but which you can probably interpret anyway, pie apple. Most likely you read the phrase to mean a kind of apple that is used in making pies. How does this meaning derive from the two words? Since there are two nouns in the expression, there are two categories involved in the meaning of the phrase, the categories of things designated by the two nouns. The category designated by the second noun, apple, is restricted by the category of the first noun, pie. Specifically, the phrase designates a subcategory of apple whose members are used in making some members of the category pie.

    We can diagram the meaning of the phrase as in the figure below. If we think of a category as the set of all members of the category, then we can represent that set by a circle, with each point in the circle corresponding to a possible member of the category. (People probably don't represent categories as sets in their minds, but this does provide a convenient way of visualizing categories and the relations between them.) Because there are two nouns in pie apple, there are two large circles in the figure. The smaller circle within the pie circle represents the category of pies containing apples, that is, the category designated by the phrase apple pie. The smaller circle within the apple circle represents the category that the phrase pie apple designates, the category of apples that are used in pies. The arrow represents the conceptual relation between the apples in this subcategory and the pies that they are used in; the label on this arrow, use, is meant to show what kind of conceptual relation this is.


    This sort of characterization also works for phrases such as pancake flour, watch screw, and tire rubber. In each case, the phrase designates a subcategory of the category designated by the second noun, and that subcategory consists of all of those members of the larger category that are used for at least some members of the category designated by the first noun. For example, tire rubber designates a subcategory of the category rubber whose members are used in making tires (members of the category tire).

    The Meaning of a Noun + Noun Phrase Involves Two Different Categories of Things and a Conceptual Relation

    But what about a phrase such as mountain goat? We can't think of goats as being used for mountains. Rather the relevant conceptual relation seems to be one oflocation. This relation also applies for phrases such as corner table, wall clock, and river stone. In each of these cases, the phrase designates a subcategory of the category designated by the second noun, and that subcategory consists of all members of the larger category that are located at or near some member of the category designated by the first noun.

    But there are still other possible conceptual relations for noun + noun phrases. In crow feather, the members of the designated subcategory are part of members of the first noun category. In tire company, the members of the subcategory deal in members of the first noun category. In apple pie, the relevant relation is one of content. It may be helpful to compare the meaning of apple pie with the meaning of pie apple, diagrammed in the figure above. For apple pie, it is a subcategory of piethat is designated, and that subcategory consists of all members of the larger category that contain members of the category designated by the first noun, apple. This is illustrated in the figure below.

    The Same Two Nouns in Different Orders Can Mean Very Different Things


    In fact it appears that there are few limits on what sort of conceptual relation can be behind the meaning of a noun + noun phrase in English, as long as the relation is seen by the Speaker as somehow accessible to a Hearer. If this is so, then how do we describe, in as general terms as possible, the meaning of noun + noun phrases, the kind of knowledge that would be needed by English Speakers and Hearers to produce and understand these phrases? Here is an attempt.

    An English phrase consisting of a noun A designating a thing category CA followed by a noun B designating a thing category CB designates a subcategory of CB whose members are related in a particular way to at least some members of CA.

    Attribution and Modification

    How can we characterize attribution (as in mushy apple) in similar terms? Here is one way to state it.

    An English attributive phrase consisting of an adjective Adj designating an attribute Att followed by a noun N designating a thing category C designates the subcategory of C whose members have attribute Att.

    If both attribution and the noun + noun pattern are examples of noun modification, we can now state generally what modification is. But first let's make sure we know what kind of thing modification is. It has both a syntactic component — the relationship between the words — and a semantic component — the relationship between the concepts and how they combine to give the meaning of the whole phrase. I will refer to such a dual relation, including both a form component (the syntactic part) and a meaning component (the semantic part), as a grammatical relation. Most of the rest of this book is about one grammatical relation or another.

    Back to our definition of modification. Syntactically, noun modification is a relation between a modifier and a head noun. In English the modifier precedes the head if it is an adjective or another noun. Semantically, noun modification involves the category of things designated by the head noun and whatever concept is designated by the modifier. The two modifying concepts we have seen are attributes (designated by adjectives) and further categories of things (designated by nouns). Specifically the modifying concept functions to narrow down the category designated by the head noun. The whole phrase designates this narrowed category.

    Speakers Can Apparently Create New Categories as They are Speaking, and Hearers Apparently Know How to Apply the Categories

    What sort of ability is implied by the fact that Speakers and Hearers can produce and understand expressions in which a noun is modified? Each such expression represents a category of things that is narrower than the category designated by the head noun. When the expression is a familiar one, such as green apple, happy face, apple pie, or table lamp, this narrower category will also be a familiar one. But when the expression is new, when the Speaker is producing it for the first time or the Hearer is hearing it for the first time, as might be the case for fuzzy apple or artichoke pie, a new category is being created on the fly. That is, people apparently have the ability to readily combine concepts to form new categories and to understand how a new category can apply to particular individual things in the world. For example, given an instance of a pie made out of artichokes, a Speaker could create a new category for such things and refer to it with the phrase artichoke pie, and a Hearer, when presented with the phrase, could create the category in their memory, even without any previous experience with such pies.

    Interpretation and Ambiguity

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What different interpretations might the phrase apple girl have? What might allow a hearer to choose from among the different interpretations?

    But how do Hearers interpret the kinds of noun + noun phrases we've been looking at? If many different conceptual relations can associate the two semantic categories with one another, then how do Hearers know which one is intended? For familiar combinations, such as apple pie, dirt bike, and flower pot, this is not a problem. In these cases, the Hearer has probably learned through experience with the phrases which interpretation is most likely.

    Let's take a potentially confusing example, llama blanket. This could be a blanket that you put on the back of a llama, a blanket that your llama likes to sleep on or with, a blanket made from the wool of llamas, a blanket decorated with images of llamas, even a blanket in the shape of the outline of a llama. Such a phrase is ambiguous; it has more than one possible interpretation. Ambiguity is rampant in human language. In fact it is probably best to see the words and sentences that people produce as representing only fragments of what Speakers are thinking and what they would like Hearers to be thinking. In a sense every utterance is ambiguous. A phrase like llama blanket is just more ambiguous than most.

    Hearers Have to Rely on More than Just their Knowledge of a Language to Understand Sentences in the Language

    So generally the problem that the Hearer faces is coming up with a single interpretation out of the various interpretations that are consistent with what is said. Clearly the Hearer has to rely on information outside of what the words and the grammar of a sentence alone convey. There are several sources for this information. One is the meanings of other phrases and sentences in the context of the ambiguous one. For example, say llama blanket occurred in this sentence: No, no, I meant the llama blanket; the one you gave me has pictures of geese on it. In this case the Hearer would have reason to believe that the phrase referred to a blanket with pictures of llamas on it.

    Another source of information is the non-linguistic context of the words, what is present in the environment, who the Speaker is, and what the Speaker might want the Hearer to know. For example, if there are several blankets in the Hearer's view, each in the shape of a different animal, the Hearer might expect llama blanket to mean 'blanket in the shape of a llama'.

    A final source of information is the Hearer's knowledge of the world, in this case, what the Hearer knows about llamas and about blankets. The fact that wool can be made from the hair of llamas means that the interpretation of the phrase as 'blanket made from llama wool' is possible, though of course only if the Hearer knows this fact about llamas.

    In sum, then, Speakers use nouns like apple and blanket when they want to refer to members of categories like apple and blanket. But sometimes these categories are too broad for the distinctions that they want to make. In this case they narrow down the categories, in some cases to categories they previously had not considered, using modifiers such as adjectives or other nouns. An adjective narrows down the head noun category by restricting it to members with a particular attribute (green, rough, etc.). A noun modifier narrows down the head noun category by restricting it to members with some relation to the members of another category, the one that is designated by the noun modifier. A variety of relations is possible, however, and the Hearer attempts to figure out which one is intended using possible experience with the particular noun + noun combination, the linguistic context, the non-linguistic context, and knowledge of the world.

    Modification, however, is just one of the ways in which meaningful elements are combined to form larger meaningful expressions. In the next section, we'll extend the discussion to this more general property of human language.