The Grammarphobia Blog

The well-coordinated modifier

Q: What do you call a string of noun phrases that share the same noun? Example: “The English, French, and math teachers all have lunch together.”

A: A construction like “English, French, and math teachers” is simply a noun (“teachers”) modified by several adjectives (“English,” “French,” “math”).

Grammatically, it’s not regarded as a string of noun phrases (“English teachers,” “French teachers,” “math teachers”) from which the repetition has been removed.

What, you ask, is a construction like this called?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe it as a head noun (“teachers”) with coordinate modifiers (“English,” “French,” and “math”).

In discussing this kind of construction, Cambridge uses the examples “new and used cars” and “London and Oxford colleges.” In each phrase, two “coordinate modifiers” apply to a single noun.

Coordination works the other way too. You can have two or more “coordinate nouns” with a single modifier. Cambridge illustrates this with the examples “new cars and trucks,” and “London schools and colleges.”

The principle here is clear, even if the terminology is a bit dense.

When a modifier plus a noun form what Cambridge calls “a composite nominal”—like “used cars”—the authors say that “the component parts can enter separately into relations of coordination.”

This means that the modifier can be joined by other modifiers, or the noun can be joined by other nouns.

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