In This Article Modification

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Defining Modification

Linguistics Modification
Sebastian Bücking
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0095


This article assembles sources that are concerned with modification as a combinatorial semantic operation—in, for example, green box, the attributive adjective green modifies the nominal box and thus constrains the range of potential referents of the complex expression to boxes that are green; similarly, in Martha read a book in the garden, the adverbial in the garden modifies the reading situation by locating it. Notably, modifiers can have fairly fundamental effects; in fake book, the attribute fake induces that the complex expression singles out objects that seem to be books, but are not. Intuitively, modifiers contribute additional information that is not explicitly called for by the target the modifier relates to. Speaking in terms of logic, this roughly says that modification does not change the arity, or logical type, of the modified target constituent. Speaking in terms of syntax, this predicts that modifiers are typically adjuncts and thus do not change the syntactic distribution of their respective target; therefore, modifiers can be easily iterated (see, e.g., big green box or Martha read a book in the garden yesterday). This initial characterization sets modification apart from other combinatorial operations such as argument satisfaction and quantification: combining a book with read satisfies an argument slot of the verbal head and thus reduces its arity (see, e.g., *read a book a journal). Quantification as, for example, in the combination of the quantifier every with the noun box, maps a nominal property onto a quantifying expression with a different distribution (see, e.g., *a every box). Their comparatively loose connection to their hosts renders modifiers a flexible, though certainly not random, means within combinatorial meaning constitution. Therefore research on modification pays particular attention to questions such as the following: how do structural conditions and the modifying function conspire in establishing complex interpretations? What roles do ontological information and fine-grained conceptual knowledge play in the course of concept combination? The sources in the present article shed light on these and related topics.


At the moment, there is no published textbook available that is dedicated primarily to modification. However, the following well-known introductions to formal semantics include chapters on modification. These chapters are in principle accessible to a wide audience; however, they are not self-contained, but require familiarity with the technical apparatus they are embedded in. Dowty, et al. 1981 and Gamut 1991 closely follow the Montague grammar paradigm according to which natural language expressions are mapped onto a context-invariant interpretation formulated in terms of intensional logic. Heim and Kratzer 1998 and Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet 2000 are in spirit similar, but provide technically lighter, modernized versions.

  • Chierchia, Gennaro, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2000. Meaning and grammar. An introduction to semantics. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    Chapter 8.3 introduces modification by adjectives and adverbs and motivates first steps toward an event semantic treatment of Adverbal Modification. Chapter 7.4 is devoted to the basics of relative clause interpretation.

  • Dowty, David R., Robert Wall, and Stanley Peters. 1981. Introduction to Montague semantics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel.

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    Chapters 7.4 and 7.6 describe how relative clauses and adverbials are treated within Montague grammar. (A selection of Richard Montague’s foundational papers can be found in Richmond H. Thomason. 1974. Formal philosophy. Selected papers of Richard Montague. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.) An annotated bibliography in chapter 9 refers to early publications that are concerned with relative clauses, adverbs, and adjectives from the perspective of Montague grammar.

  • Gamut, L. T. F. 1991. Logic, language, and meaning. Vol. 2, Intensional logic and logical grammar. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Chapter 6.3.11 includes a brief introduction to modification by adjectives, relative clauses, and adverbs within Montague grammar. The textbook includes exercises for which, in some cases, solutions are provided.

  • Heim, Irene and Angelika Kratzer. 1998. Semantics in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    Includes parts on modification by adjectives and relative clauses (see chapters 4.3 and 5); shows in great detail, how, within formal semantics, arguments for specific formal analyses are pondered. The rule for predicate modification that the work develops is a standard reference within contemporary research on modification.

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