In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modification

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Defining Modification

Linguistics Modification
Sebastian Bücking
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • 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.

General Overviews

McNally 2016 and Bücking 2018 provide self-contained overviews of modification as a semantic operation. While topics and general approach overlap to a considerable degree, their respective focus is different. Bücking 2018 dwells on the composition of modifiers and its substantiation by formal semantics; McNally 2016 is broader in coverage and formally lighter.

  • Bücking, Sebastian. 2018. The compositional semantics of modification. In Oxford research encyclopedia of linguistics. Edited by Mark Aronoff. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.354

    Introduces into the composition of modifiers, primarily from the perspective of formal semantics. Carves out major research questions regarding the syntax-semantics interface of modifiers (e.g., the role of syntactic position for modifier interpretation; see as well Syntax) and their behavior at the semantics-pragmatics interface. This includes the question of how conceptual knowledge such as context information and sortal restrictions feed into composition (see as well Meaning Adaptations).

  • McNally, Louise. 2016. Modification. In The Cambridge handbook of formal semantics. Edited by Maria Aloni and Paul Dekker, 442–465. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139236157.016

    Well-accessible overview of modification. Summarizes different typologies of modifiers (as motivated by morpho-syntactic criteria, descriptive content, logical behavior, or relation to discourse) and basics of their composition. Provides an introduction to degree modification (see as well Degree Modification) and to the question of how modifiers relate to the distinction between at-issue and non-at-issue content (see as well At-Issue versus Non-At-Issue Content).

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