Definition of term Premodification in the Noun Phrase

Despite its long title this is a very useful and simple stylistic technique, and one that is easy to identify. You will recall from Unit 2 that a noun is something that can be preceded meaningfully in context by a/an or the: ‘a house’, ‘an albatross’, ‘the kettle’. I say ‘meaningfully in context’ because it’s possible to use the same words in different grammatical contexts: ‘the police kettle the demonstrators’, ‘wainscots house cockroaches’, ‘these deadlines albatross me’ – where the same words are used as verbs. Therefore, if you look up house in a dictionary you’ll find it listed as both a noun and a verb. So the test for a noun is: can it be preceded by a/an or the in context.

  • Queens Park Rangers are on the up   – up is a noun in this context.
  • We’re going into the wide beyond   – beyond is a noun in this context.
  • The into in this sentence has been nounified   – into is a noun in this context.

The whole thing, a/an or the + noun, is called a Noun Phrase:

[a/an or the + N] NP

It is normal to use light noun phrases like this, but it is also common to put modifying words, phrases or clauses in between the a/an or the [which are called articles] and the noun. Such inserted material modifies the meaning of the noun: ‘a large house’, ‘a tremendously palace-like house’, ‘a very hard to run due to its size house’. However insertions like this aren’t obligatory – one could write a literary text without any premodification in the Noun Phrase – so if an author puts premodified Noun Phrases into their text, it begs the question, why? What kind of information is being given? Different authors do very different things with this premodifying slot.

Demonstration of Premodification in the Noun Phrase

Read the following text, keeping a weather eye out for the nouns. Remember the test is: can you put a/an or the in front of the word you suspect might be a noun, in the context of the surrounding text?
When you have read through the text, go back over it and identify the nouns and then click below to see the text with the nouns made explicit.

In the text below, nouns are marked in red, with premodifiers in blue. I have put names – Proper Nouns – in orange, unless they occur in premodifying position. I have not coloured the pro-form one (which stands for nouns). Premodifying quantifiers (few, some) and enumerators (numbers) are given in green.

A series of semi-intelligible pronouncements began by way of a microphone and one or two loudspeakers. As it proceeded the man Pugh, who now struck Charlie as distinctly deranged, kept sending him purposeful glances, promising him more to come, more to be communicated than just what he was called. Across the way, near the shape under the cloth, a smartly dressed youth who had to be the mayor introduced the, or merely a, minister of state at the Welsh Office. This man, who seemed scarcely older, spoke some formula and jerked at the end of an ornamental rope or cord that Charlie had not noticed before. With wonderful smoothness the red cloth parted and fell to reveal, standing on a plinth of what looked like olive-green marble, a shape in glossy yellow metal that was about the height of a human being without looking much more like one than the beaten-up chunk of stone that had stood there before.

There was a silence that probably came less from horror than sheer bafflement, then a sudden rush of applause. The presumed sculptor, a little fellow covered in hair like an artist in a cartoon, appeared and was the centre of attention for a few seconds. Another youngster, who said he represented the Welsh Arts Council, started talking about money. It came on to rain, though not enough to bother a Welsh crowd. On a second glance, the object on the plinth did look a certain amount like a man, but the style ruled out anything in the way of portraiture, and Charlie felt he was probably not the only one to wonder whether some handy abstraction – the spirit of Wales, say – had pushed out the advertised subject. Those close enough, however, could see Brydan’s name on the plate along with just his dates, 1913-1960.

Alun’s turn came. He played it low-key, avoiding a display of emotion so long after the event, sticking to facts, facts like Brydan being the greatest Welsh poet that had ever lived and also the greatest poet in the English language to have lived in the present century, together with minor but no less certain facts like his utter dedication to his art, though leaving out other ones like his utter dedication to Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey and Astounding Science Fiction.

Note on Analysis
I have not highlighted way in by way of as the three words act as a single prepositional phrase, nor have I highlighted pro-forms – words which stand in for nouns – in the phrases ‘more (i.e. things) to come, more (i.e. things) to be communicated’; ‘without looking much more like one’ (i.e. a human), ‘the only one’ (i.e. person), ‘other ones’ (i.e. facts)

Hide explicit noun references.

Click here to see the nouns in the above text made explicit.

Now that we’ve identified the Noun Phrases, our next task is to see what kind of information is given in the premodifying position. I select in particular:

semi-intelligible pronouncements, one or two loudspeakers, the, or merely a minister (note how in context, the sequence ‘the, or merely a’, premodifies ‘minister’, even though the semantics of or mean one or the other but not both), some formula, what looked like olive green marble, presumed sculptor, minor but no less certain facts

The modifiers serve to undercut the nouns. Not ‘a sculptor’, but ‘a presumed sculptor’. Not ‘olive green marble’, but ‘what looked like olive green marble’. We can find reinforcing lack of specificity or lack of certainty elsewhere in the text: a youth ‘who had to be the mayor’ rather than ‘the mayor’, ‘an ornamental rope or cord’ rather than ‘an ornamental rope’, a ‘youngster who said he represented the Welsh Arts Council’ rather than ‘a youngster from the Welsh Arts Council’.

Why might this be? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

The extract is about Charlie watching the formal and ceremonial unveiling of a statue of the great Welsh poet, Brydan, who lived from 1913-1960. Alun gives a short eulogy. He proclaims what are twice said to be facts: that Brydan was ‘the greatest Welsh poet that had ever lived and also the greatest poet in the English language to have lived in the present century’. He does not proclaim two undercutting facts: that the great Brydan was also an alcoholic and a low-brow science-fiction devotee.

Was Brydan a great literary figure or not? Does he merit the statue? In the context of the novel it is left unresolved, and the novel’s central theme is about how to distinguish that which is genuine from that which is sham.

Literary Exercise

Read the following text, keeping a weather eye out for the nouns. When you have read through the text, go back over it and identify the premodifiers in the Noun Phrase, then click below to see the text with the nouns made explicit.

In the text below, nouns are marked in red, with premodifiers in blue. I have put names – Proper Nouns – in orange, unless they occur in premodifying position. I have not coloured the pro-form one (which stands for nouns). Premodifying quantifiers (few, some) and enumerators (numbers) are given in green.

[Silence]
First Voice (Very softly)

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

      Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, school-teacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

      You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

      Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Hide explicit noun references.

Click here to see the nouns in the above text made explicit.

What is the effect of the premodifiers? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

As Thomas sometimes puts hyphens in compound words and sometimes not, I have treated the first element of compound nouns as a modifier, unless the word is in common use (i.e. tradesmen, school-teacher, undertaker, dressmaker). I have treated glow-worm as a noun, rather than a premodifier and a noun, because it refers to a specific animal. But you might want to include all the first elements of the compound nouns in your analysis for the sake of consistency and you would be right to do so, in which case the premodifier count will be even higher. It’s simply a question of convention – the convention has evolved of writing the compounds undertaker, dressmaker, as though they were one word; school-teacher, glow-worm as though they were nearly one word or on the way to becoming one word, but not jollyrodgered, organplaying, wetnosed – these are Thomas’ own.

Not only does Thomas put more words before nouns than is usual in speech, he also puts words in the premodifier position that don’t usually sit in that position. In the following Noun Phrases:

the snouting, velvet dingles

the lulled and dumbfound town

the webfoot cocklewomen

the tidy wives

the organplaying wood

the bucking ranches

the jollyrodgered sea

the anthracite statues

the wetnosed yards

– the premodifiers do not usually collocate with the nouns. [Collocation refers to the company words usually keep. ‘Addled’ collocates with ‘brains’ or ‘eggs’. ‘Rancid’ collocates with ‘oil’, ‘butter’ or ‘bacon’. ‘Tidy’ collocates with a feature that can also be untidy – ‘room’, ‘desk’, ‘moustache’.] Contrast Amis’ purposeful glances, smartly dressed youth, sheer bafflement, utter dedication, where the premodifiers and nouns do collocate.

Hunched usually modifies animate beings, or parts of beings – a hunched back, rather than a hunched wood. Snouting in snouting velvet dingles refers, semantically, anaphorically back to the moles, rather than cataphorically forward to the inanimate dingles. Organplaying refers, semantically, anaphorically back to rings, trousseaux, bridesmaided, aisles, rather than cataphorically forward to the inanimate wood. Ranches, being inanimate, cannot buck, which usually collocates with horses. Wetnosed refers, semantically, anaphorically back to the dogs, rather than cataphorically forward to the inanimate yards.

People are usually dumbfounded, rather than an inanimate town, and the base form dumbfound does not usually occur in premodifying position. Similarly the base form webfoot does not usually occur in premodifying position, and webfooted usually collocates with types of birds, not women.

There are two algorithms here:

1) place in front of the inanimate noun to come a modifier which collocates with the animate noun just mentioned

2) take a compound modifier which ends in –ed, dock the –ed and collocate it with something it does not usually collocate with

And what of the effect? That we can write algorithms for the Noun Phrase technique does not diminish Thomas’ writing, it’s mere fact. The effect, however, is subjective. Under Milk Wood has proved extremely popular – one of those texts which are more enduringly popular with the public at large than with present-day critics. This would suggest that listeners are animated by these surprises in the Noun Phrase.

Dylan Thomas, 1954, Under Milk Wood, A Play for Voices narrated by Richard Burton.

Teaching Point

Premodification is not obligatory. It is possible to write a text without any premodification in the Noun Phrase at all. Therefore, when it is present, it is doing a job. What this job is will vary from text to text – and different readers will have different interpretations and different reactions.