Noun Modification

Understanding noun collocates and the structure of noun phrases

Noun phrases are very important and very common in English so you need to know how to write them well.

You already know that adjectives are used to describe nouns (delicious ice-cream), and perhaps that nouns can be used like adjectives (strawberry ice-cream). But adjectives, nouns and adverbs can all be used in various combinations to build complex noun phrases. Here are some examples (drag to scroll though the words):

In this case, the adverb modifies the adjective and the adjective modifies the noun.

Verb participles (verb+ing or verb+ed) often function as adjectives. As such they can be modified with adverbs.

Nouns are sometimes modified by colour adjectives, which in turn can be modified by other adjectives. However, each adjective may separately modify the noun. For example, "long" in "long red hair" modifies "hair", not "red".


Nouns can also be modified by ing-participles or ed-participles and adjectives, as we saw above. This example shows ing-participles. They modify nouns. So they look like adjectives but in fact they are often acting as nouns as in the Adjective Noun Noun pattern below. In this pattern the adjective is normally modifying the whole of the participle-noun phrase: e.g. strategic [planning system].


In this pattern the head noun is modified by another noun and the noun-noun phrase is modified by an adjective. For example, favourite [television programme]. A noun-noun phrase can also be modified by a further noun. There are a few examples in the above table. For example, database [management system].


Longer Complex Noun Phrases.

Noun phrases can be much longer than three words. The examples above show only pre-modification (nouns modified by adjectives, participles and other nouns, before the headword). In academic and technical texts noun phrases can be long and complex, involving pre- and post-modification. This is because such phrases can pack in a great deal of information in a few words.

Here are a few examples with the headword highlighted in each case:

critical public health implications

the semidesert region just south of the Sahara Desert

public sector expenditure on biodiversity conservation in the UK

a predominant economic, social and environmental relevance in Europe

Comparison of PCBs and PAHs levels in European coastal waters using mussels from the Mytilus edulis complex as biomonitors (Olenycz et al., 2015)



Only the words which appear in the central strip can be considered acceptable collocates. Underlined headings indicate categories whose collocates change when scrolling occurs.