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Nouns as Modifiers

Modify a noun with a noun

office chair


Noun Modifiers vs. Phrase or Clause Modifiers


A noun can specify (name) something or someone, or it can describe something or someone. This kind of noun is an "ascriptive noun".


                 office modifies chair
It is an office chair (a chair for an office)  

May I have a soup spoon.  (a spoon for soup)

Ring the door bell. (the bell of the door)

It is a picnic table.   (a table for a picnic)

He rides a mountain bike (a bike for mountains)

He is an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent (an agent of the IRS)

*He is a Kyoto man(a Kyotan, Kyoto-ite?)  (a man from Kyoto)



While an adjective or ascriptive noun are placed before the noun, a phrase of clause (wordier modifiers) are placed after the noun.


               office modifies chair
It is a chair for an office(PP) 

May I have a spoon for soup.   (PP)

Ring the bell that is for the door.  (Relative Cls)

It is a table for picnics. (PP) 

He rides a bike for mountain use. (PP)

He is an agent of the Internal Revenue Service a tax man (PP) 

He is a man from Kyoto(PP + proper noun)


*incorrect use   See Nationalities for specific terms.

Noun and Adjective are two separate categories. We can say:  A noun functions as a modifier. An adjective functions as a modifier. But not: A noun used as an adjective.  See Function vs. Category.

Meaning of the modifier varies: an office chair (location of use), a wheel chair (descriptor) a kiddie chair (user)





Word Forms Ending in -S

Exceptional Word Forms

sports car


Exceptional Word Forms


In these words, the final "s" is part of the word. (It is not a plural suffix.)

It is a sports magazine / car.     (Indicates variety)

We attended a jobs fair (Indicates variety)

The measles¹ outbreak made several children sick.

*We went to a vegetables market. 

Hundreds of people have called to complain about illegal fireworks noise, beginning at dusk and carrying on until early morning.²

The pyrotechnics expert will talk about how fireworks displays are designed. (displays)


More commonly, a singular noun modifies a noun.

I bought a sport-utility vehicle. (other "sport" words)

I have a job interview today.


We went to a vegetable market.  

By controlling the shape of the firework cartridge and the chemicals inside these tubes, you’ll get to enjoy the different unique sounds.

The pyrotechnics expert will talk about how firework sounds are designed. (the device)


*incorrect usage.

¹See related page Unusual Singular/Plural Nouns (words ending in -s that are singular in agreement).

²Both singular and plural forms can be found in usage. Compare: fireworks display but a firework cartridge or sounds

"Sounds of the Fourth: The Science Behind the Snap, Crackle, Boom." NPR. Hosted by Ari Shapiro with guest John Conkling, 4 July 2016.






Linking modifiers to a noun



Single vs Double-noun Modifiers


A hyphen is not used when one noun is a modifier to another noun.                                                                                                                                                                          


He applied for a director position.

The train station is closed.   train (N) modifies station (N)

Lake Tahoe is on the Nevada border.   Nevada (N) modifies border (N)

FOR CLARITY    (noun → noun–noun)

We bought two foot stools.   two (det.) modifies foot (N) which modifies stools (N)


Two modifiers are linked with a hyphen to indicate relationship: (1) to link two words of equal importance, (2) to link two words modifying a noun that follows.

FOR EQUAL IMPORTANCE  (noun–noun → noun)

He applied for a producer-director position

The Menlo-Atherton train station is closed.

Lake Tahoe is on the California-Nevada border.

FOR CLARITY    (noun–noun → noun)

We bought two-foot stools.  See Hyphens.



*In linguistic description, two is a determiner "two chairs", or a noun "They came in twos." (Huddleston 5.7.6)
See Hyphens for details.







Nouns as Modifiers

A Range of Meaning



Possible Meaning of a Noun as a Modifier


In some cases, a noun modifier may express an opinion of the following noun.

A noun modifier may also indicate material, origin or source of the following noun.

A noun modifier may also express a possessive  (temporary) relationship.

A noun modifier often expresses a functional relationship—an instrument for the noun.


He's a boy king.  (simple-minded)

It's a girl game. (too easy)

He's a boy scout.  (a youth)

He's a cub scout (age 7-11yrs.)

It's a boy toy.  (belongs to or appropriate for a young male)


He is a boy scout leader.  (A leader for boys.)

It's a metal spoon.  (Adj, N) substance

It's a soup spoon.  (for eating soup)

It's a dog bone.   ("dawg" bad quality)

It's a dog movie. (a loser)

It's a dog bone.  This must be a burial site of a canine.  (source, osseous )

It's a dog bone.  (dog treat that belongs to a dog)

It's a dog leash.  (for training the dog)

He's a Harvard man. (educated, upper-class, or intelligent)

He's a Harvard native.  (born in the city of Harvard)

He's a Harvard graduate. (an alumnus of Harvard University)


It's a brick house.  (It's built like a brick—ultra-strong.)

It's a brick house.  (material)

It's a state house.  (It is owned and managed by the state.)

It's a brick warehouse. (for storing bricks)


Let sleeping dogs lie.  (not causing trouble at the moment)

It's a sleeping bag.  (We use it for camping.)

It's a [spotted / spotty] record. (poor achievement)

It's a spotted owl.  (has spots on its feathers)

(It's a spot remover.) (for removing spots)

Also see Participle Modifiers 2 ambiguities.

"Let sleeping dogs lie."  – leave things as they are to avoid potential conflict or trouble.

Adjectives express properties—size, shape, color, worth, age: He's a legal adviser.  [He's honest and law-abiding.]  (Huddleston 526-62)

Complements express semantic arguments of the head noun—property, relation, process, or action. He's a legal advisor. [He's a professional in the field of law.] (Huddleston 439-43)





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Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description



Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions


Nouns as Adjectives—In traditional grammar, the above grammar focus is described as "a noun used as an adjective".

"When a noun is used as an adjective, it is in its singular form…. When a noun used as a modifier is combined with a number expression, the noun is singular and a hyphen is used."  (Azar 7-3)

12e Using nouns as modifiers—sometimes a noun can function as an adjective by modifying another noun as in chicken soup or money supply. (Lundsford 209)

(Note that linguistics reject "function as an adjective" because Adjective is a category of words and not a function. That is, 'a noun functions as a modifier' as stated in the section header.)



Current linguistic analysis describes the examples above as "nouns used as attributive modifiers". That is to say, a "noun" cannot be an "adjective" (a grammatical class) but it can be a "modifier" (a grammatical function). Because it occurs before the head noun, it is called a "pre-head modifier".  (Huddleston 4.2.2-3, 5 §14.2)

"Attributive nouns fail to qualify as adjectives by virtue of the grading and adverbial dependents criteria.  They don't take very or too or the analytic comparative marker more as modifier."  — Nouns as Attributive Modifiers (Huddleston

fresh cheese cake is delicious.

Both fresh (Adj) and cheese (n) function as modifiers to the noun cake.  The noun phrase (NP) "A fresh cheese cake" functions as the subject of the clause.

Many common ideas in English are expressed by noun + noun compounds. The first noun is singular and no article is included. The second noun may be plural and may include an article (if it is a count noun) a horse race /  some horse races.

The first noun modifies or describes the second noun: 

(1) the first noun classifies the second noun: (tells which kind)

  • milk chocolate (a kind of chocolate)  / chocolate milk ( a kind of milk)
  • a horse race (a kind of race) / a race horse (a kind of horse)

(2) the second noun is the subject of the first noun: ("for")

  • a shoe shop  (a shop that sells shoes; a shop for shoes)
  • a tooth brush (a brush that cleans teeth; a brush for teeth)

(3) the second noun is a container for the first noun:

  • a coffee can / cup
  • a soap dish / box

(4) first noun indicates the material of the second noun:

  • a gold ring / a silver ring
  • a paper flower / a silk flower

(Swan 385-6)

Ambiguous pairs occur:  a baby doctor (a young  doctor, a kind of doctor); a baby store (a store that sells babies, a store for baby goods)



Word Categories: N – Noun; V – Verb; Aux – Auxiliary; Adj – Adjective; Adv – Adverb; P –Preposition; Det –Determiner.

Phrasal Categories: NP – Noun Phrase; VP – Verb Phrase; AdjP – Adjective Phrase; AdvP – Adverb Phrase; PP – Prepositional Phrase; DP – Determinative Phrase.

Clausal Categories: Cls – clause; F – finite clause; NF – nonfinite clause (Ger – gerund; Inf – infinitive; PPart – past participle).

Word Functions: Subj – subject; Pred – predicate/predicator; Compcomplement: elements required by an expression to complete its meaning (DO – direct object; IO – indirect object);  Adjunctadjunct: elements not required by an expression to complete its meaning (Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator); Suplsupplement: a clause or phrase added onto a clause that is not closely related to the central thought or structure of the main clause.



Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Lunsford, Andrea A., and Robert J. Connors. The New St. Martin's Handbook. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.





Practice 1

Names of things




Complete the word form.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or "Check 1-15" button at the bottom.


car keys

baseball and bat



dog with bone


tree house



dessert plate

watermelonIn the summer, a truck that is filled with watermelons comes to our town.


house planThis is the


dinner with five courses

course (N) – separate part or dish of a meal






Practice 2

Gerunds and Nouns as Modifiers to Nouns




Select the correct word order.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 16-25" button.


park for baseball

light for a street

a lace for shoes

clip for hair

line for telephones

walking shoes


wedding dress

hand out of water

shooting gallery duck