This was originally a post entirely devoted to English grammar. I decided to stir things a bit and changed the title. For those of you who are not there yet, the Latin sentence in the title means “Then stood up Tiberius Gracchus, who…” Wait a minute – why do I have a subjunctive here?
Back now to the original post – the one that is entirely devoted to English grammar. I may return to the above subjunctive in the Comments section of this post.
Sometimes a noun or a name is not enough. You need a modifier for it to hook your audience’s attention. In English, where nouns often have multiple meanings, modifiers are essential – a character may be Chinese or Shakespearean, or mellow, and by attaching the adjective to it, you give your audience the means to filter some of the less relevant possibilities. Here are some of the other ways to limit the meaning of nouns in English:
- a man of steel, the concept of justice, scent of a woman, love for mankind
Instead of an adjective before your noun, you link another noun to the first through a preposition. (Speaking of prepositions, “of” is a particularly labyrinthine one. At one point, I threw my arms and labeled it “link.”)
- SpiderMan, cookie cutter, coffee pot, tax breaks
Just place another noun in front of the vague one and you are done. It’s sleek and easy. You can use adverbs too: Super + Man, outside + influences. I have always suspected the first names are front modifiers of this very sort – it is vague and ambiguous to refer to someone as Smith, but add Jim and your audience immediately starts to nod in recognition.
- Men in Black, goats in the Agora, the Raiders in the 70’s
This one is easy too – just use an adverbial phrase as if it’s an adjective. The only difference is that you don’t put it in front of the noun-to-modify, as in “smelly goats,” but after.
- Nouns-to-modify, bride-to-be
“To modify” and “to be” are infinitives, i.e., verb forms with insufficient definition. You use them to hint at the action- or state-to-come. Maybe this one should be listed as a subset of the Goats In The Agora type.
- people I met, tasks I’ve done
This one modifier is particularly confusing for learners of English because it comes in truncated form. In essence, it is a relative clause with a missing relative pronoun. Relative clauses, as the name indicates, are clauses establishing a link between the noun and an action or state (if unsatisfied with my definition, proffer your own.)
I am sure there are more ways to modify a noun in English. My point is that they all perform the same function, no matter how different they look or how you label them. Once you compile them in a mental list, you can sort them in subtypes and use them in the appropriate context.