Common Topic

Modifiers for Nouns

Keywords: modifiers, adjectives, numbers, prepositions

This article serves as an introduction to the grammar of modifiers as pertains to nouns (naz poenys keulca). This class includes adjectives, as well as things we would not think of as being in the same class in English, such as prepositions, and some vocabulary that would be regarded as determiners in English, like demonstratives and quantifiers. Common regards all these items as instances of the same class, modifiers, obeying largely the same set of rules, and theoretically interchangeable with modifiers on verbs.


According to the theory of Common grammar, any member of the modifier class could potentially be used in either a noun phrase or a verb phrase. In practice, there are some words that are more commonly adverbs. some that are more commonly adjectives, and some that readily go back and forth. Common has a tendency to use zero derivation between an adjectival or adverbial meaning for a modifier. However, just as Common grammarians say there are no nouns or verbs, only terms, and that isn't entirely true, so there is a distinction in practice between modifiers on nouns and modifiers on verbs.

It helps to deal with nouns and verbs separately. There are some rules in common between nouns and verbs, but also important differences between the ways you can use a modifier syntactically between a noun or verb context.

Modifiers have the following characteristics when dealing with nouns:

  1. They fall into distinct classes (locations, quantities, manner, origin, etc.)
  2. They must appear after the determiner (article) and before the first modifying term.
  3. They typically appear in a standard order by class.
  4. Some modifiers can take objects (na tritkija). These are like prepositions. Sometimes an object is optional and sometimes it is mandatory. The object must be a noun phrase or relativiser in the nominative case. A modifier with an object cannot stay in the space between the article and the head term, and must be kicked out to immediately follow the head term.
  5. The relative pronoun 'su' that allows a relative clause to modify the noun is considered to be a case of this and is also kicked out to follow the head term - it must go after any prepositional phrases.
  6. As noted before, an article on its own can be a pronoun, but if any modifier is used with the article, including a prepositional phrase or relative clause, the dummy head term 'yn' (na epális jerekka) is required, or else a real head term has to be used.

We will proceed by walking through the modifier classes in order of appearance and briefly explain how they work. Many of these can be whole articles themselves and will be followed up later, the aim here is to provide the base.

In English, we have a natural order for adjectives to appear before a noun that is relatively strict, perhaps surprisingly so to many people, because this is not a rule taught in school, but nevertheless one people follow closely without thinking about it. The order goes opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose. So you can have a pretty little old pointy grey German steel sewing needle, but reordering the adjectives will tend to sound wrong to naive speakers, so a German old little steel pointy sewing pretty grey needle won't do. What you may notice about this order is it tends to flow towards increasingly permanent attributes of the noun the closer we get to the noun.

Common follows almost exactly this order, which is not surprising, as this order is very common in the world's languages, and Common is relatively head-final in the way noun phrases are contructed, like English. As well, it seems that Davidson did not fully plan this aspect of the language, and the order probably came about partly from native language influence of L2 speakers, especially from English. Today, however, modifier order is a subject that is explicitly taught in Common second language instruction.

Common adds some modifiers that are not really adjectives, like numbers, demonstratives and prepositions to the mix, as well as modifying terms, which are terms that straddle the line between parts of a compound word and modifiers in their role in the phrase. The order of these types of special elements was defined by Davidson.

The most general order of elements in the noun phrase is as follows, from beginning to end. Mandatory elements are in bold underline. Elements which have a strict position that never deviates when present are in bold. Elements which are generally found in this position but which may have exceptions in order to convey a special meaning or for literary effect are undecorated. The head term, which is mandatory if any modifiers are present, is underlined.

  1. Article
  2. Action
  3. Location (Demonstrative)
  4. Quantity (Number/Amount)
  5. Possessor
  6. Size
  7. Opinion
  8. Manner
  9. Age
  10. Shape
  11. Colour
  12. Origin
  13. Material
  14. Purpose
  15. Possessing Terms
  16. Modifying Terms
  17. Head Term

Besides the fact that Common has more of a tendency to put size before opinion than English (although this is also a common pattern in English, think 'Big Bad Wolf'), the order is identical to English.

Some of these categories can be fulfilled with a prepositional phrase, and in Common, prepositions are modifiers, but a preposition with an object cannot stay between the article and the head term and has to move to after the head term. Such phrases appear after the head term in the reverse order that they would have appeared if they stayed in front of the noun, so a prepositional phrase of purpose would appear before a prepositional phrase of origin. That is, these modifying units stay the same relative closeness to the head term regardless of whether they appear before or after it.

The Action category is a placeholder for relative clauses that modify the noun. Such phrases are introduced with a relative pronoun/modifier that always has an object and hence never appears between the article and the head term and always appears after the head term. Their position at the beginning of the sequence accounts for the fact that in real use, they will appear after any prepositional phrases, i.e., furthest from the head term.

Traces (Naz Tres)

As an aside, Common grammarians think that when an element is removed from the article-head term bracket because it has a object, it leaves a trace behind. So take for example the phrase:

Na citit paluh
The happy dog

That could also be legitimately expressed, dropping the head term, as:

Na citit yn

That translates approximately to 'the happy one'. If 'citit' weren't there, you could say simply 'na', but the presence of citit triggers the rule requiring a head term, and the dummy yn drops in. Now lets say that the happiness were expressed periphrastically instead of directly with a modifier, so it is reframed as an action rather than a manner.

Na paluh su se an citit
The(NOM) dog that(ABS) stand(NP,IM) be happy

Common grammarians think there is a trace left behind where 'su' theoretically was in the phrase before the 'modifier with an object must move out of the bracket' rule was applied. We'll indicate this with T.

Na T paluh su se an citit
The(NOM) TRACE dog that(ABS) stand(NP,IM) be happy

So if you drop the head term now, this happens:

Na T yn su se an citit
The(NOM) TRACE one that(ABS) stand(NP,IM) be happy

According to this analysis, the reason why the yn is mandatory and you can't say 'na su se an citit' is because of the trace left behind triggering the 'head term required with a modifier' rule.

Noun Modifier Classes

1. Articles (Nar Poenys Samorka)

The article is mandatory. Articles evolved from pronouns in the language's ficitonal history, and can still serve as pronouns, but if used as such, they require a dummy head term yn to be present if there are any modifiers present, or else a regular head term. Refer to the Nouns and Pronouns article. All of the article/determiners listed there can introduce a noun phrase, except the special relative pronouns su and si, which have some characteristics in common but which cannot take modifiers or have a head term.


Na paluh
The dog

Na is an article, the third person definite article 'a' in the singular nominative case, which is the case which must be used to refer to a noun outside the context of a present or presumed verb.

2. Action

Action is in the series as a placeholder for where Common grammarians think the trace goes when a relative clause with 'su' is used to modify the noun phrase. Because phrases kicked out of the article-head term bracket for having objects proceed in revese order after the head term where they would have appeared if they were licit to stay in the bracket, this explains why relative clauses are always last.


Na T citit paluh xu a pikki teo zeul
The happy dog that was looking at the cat

'xu' is the ergative form of su, and is kicked out of the bracket for requiring an object. The trace T appears before citit, happy, which is considered a modifier of manner.

3. Location

Modifiers in this position perform the function that demonstratives like 'this' and 'that' perform in English. In Common, they are not determiners on their own. Common has a three-way distance distinction like Spanish, approximately equivalent to 'here', 'there' and 'yonder' in English. These modifiers are also adverbs.

Demonstrative Modifiers of Relative Location
Modifier Meaning with Noun Meaning with Verb
spet this here
spot that there
spocu that over yonder yonder

As well, prepositional phrases that give the noun's location appear in this position, which means that they appear late in the list of modifying prepositional phrases after the noun.


Ja spocu citit paluh te zeul a pikki.
The(ERG) yonder happy dog hit(NP,IMP) eye the(ABS) cat

'The happy dog over yonder is looking at the cat.'

The demonstrative 'spocu' or 'yonder' goes in the location position, so after the article and before 'citit', which is a modifier of manner.

4. Quantity

This category includes actual numbers, as well as quantifying modifiers like some or all. Take 'awke', 'all'.


Jaz awke citit pikki te slek az skitrem.
The(ERG,PL) all happy cat hit(NP,IM) eat the(ABS,PL) mouse

'All happy cats eat mice'

The quantifier awke comes before the modifier of manner, citit. Because 'awke' doesn't explicitly count anything but says the entire set is being referred to, it take plural agreement. Contrast with the case when a number is used:

Ja citit pikki tene slek yr kawa skitrem.
The(ERG) happy cat hit(NP.PF) eat some(ABS.PA) two mouse.

'The happy cat ate two mice.'

In this case, the third-person, absolutive, indefinite paucal article 'yr' is used because the speaker is not talking about specific mice but a couple of random mice (if they used 'ar' in this situation, it would imply that the specific mice were interesting in some way), hence indefinite, and paucal because the mice were explicitly counted.

5. Possessor

Much like the Action position discussed earlier. the Possessor position marks where the trace would go for one of the types of periphrastic possession (using the null preposition) and hence its position in the order of prepositional phrases after the head term. There is no way for anything to occupy this position actually in the bracket, other than a trace.


A T citit pikki na pocuk nox triju ija skitrem.
The(ABS) TRACE happy cat of(NULL) the(NOM) child go(NP,IMP) see the(DAT) mouse.

'The child's happy cat sees the mouse.'

The null preposition 'y' is never written in normal writing, but is represented here with the null symbol ∅. The T shows where Common grammarians think the trace it leaves behind goes, again before the adjective of manner, citit.

6-14. Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases

Items in classes 6-14 function more like normal adjectives. The order of these elements was never specified by Davidson and grew up under rreal world usage, perhaps influenced by English, and perhaps influenced by Common's head last word building style which closely resembles English. There are a couple of little differences from the classic English order of opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose. Bear in mind, though, that like English, this order is a tendency studied after the fact. Native speakers usually follow this order, but numerous examples can be found where the order is not followed, perhaps to emphasize some element or to draw the reader's attention by presenting them with something jarring or unexpected.

This order being more of a tendency than a hard rule is seen as well in any prepositional phrases following the noun. As noted before, the order of modifying phrases after the noun is the reverse of modifiers in the article-head term bracket, but the proximity to the head term is the same in either direction. Any or all of these spots might be filled with a prepositional phrase. In the examples that follow, we will give simple examples using straight modifiers, and spend more time discussing prepositions in a future article.

6. Size

Modifiers that fit in this category are relatively straightforward, like 'akpe', 'big', or 'sinku', 'small'. The thing that's notable about this category is that like in English, there is some ambiguity as to whether it should come before or after opinion. In English, we say that opinion comes before size, and grammarians of Common say that size comes before opinion. Exceptions may be found for any part of the ordering, but this part is particularly prone ot exceptions.


akpe paluh nox triju ijaz awke sinku skitrem.
The(ABS) big dog go(NP,IMP) see the(DAT,PL) all little mouse

'The big dog sees all the little mice.'

There are two modifiers of size in that sentence. The second one, 'sinku', comes after 'awke', 'all', a modifier of quantity.

7. Opinion

This is maybe a little different than in English. Common grammarians divide the opinion category into opinion and manner. Opinion in this case refers to the speaker's attitude towards the term being described, and manner describes some quality of emotion or demeanour deemed to be more intrinsic to the noun than the speaker's attitide towards it. An example of a modifer of opinion is 'xeufe', 'beautiful'.


Na sinku xeufe pikki
The beautiful little cat

Note that the natural order between the modifiers 'singu', 'little' and 'xeufe', 'beautiful' is reversed between Common and English. Also note that there is a bit of a grey area here, because sinku also hase a positive connotation of cute or good, which can shade into opinion and influence the order.

8. Manner

As noted above for Opinion, manner is a subset of what might be considered opinion in English and pertains to the demeanour or emotion of the object in a way that is deemed to be more intrinsic to the noun than the speaker's attitude towards it. An example of a modifier of manner is 'citit', 'happy'. Qualities like 'fast' or 'slow' would also fall into this category. There is an element of opinion or inference to modifiers of manner, but from the point of view of the speaker, these appear to be more objective qualities.


Na akpe xeufe citit paluh
The big, beautiful, happy dog

In this example, 'citit', a modifier of manner, comes after akpe (size) and xeufe (opinion).

9. Age

There is nothing special to note about age. An example of a modifier of age is 'etirek', 'old'.

Na akpe etirek costo
The big old house

The modifier of age 'etirek' comes after the modifier of size 'akpe' in the example.

10. Shape

Modifiers of shape are usually derived systematically from terms of shape using the derivational affix '-ys'. Otherwise, there is not much special to say about them. An example is 'lytys', rectangular or box-shaped.

Na etirek lytys yn
The old square one

The modifier of shape 'lytys' comes after the modifier of age 'etirek'. The fact lytys is derived from the term 'lyt', 'box', does not impact its usage as a modifier.

11. Colour

There is nothing special to note about colour. An example of a modifier of colour is 'uzre', 'green'.

Na akpe uzre costo
The big green house

The modifier of colour 'uzre' comes after the modifier of size 'akpe' in the example.

12. Origin

Modifiers of origin are often derived systematically from terms of place using the derivational affix '-(y)s'. Otherwise, there is not much special to say about them. An example is 'Kaskétijas', Cascasdian.

Na sinku Kaskétijas pocuk
The little Cascadian child

The modifier of origin 'Kaskétijas' comes after the modifier of size 'sinku'.

13. Material

Modifiers of material are often derived systematically from terms of material using the derivational affix '-(y)s'. Otherwise, there is not much special to say about them. An example is 'felokys', 'wooden'.

Na xeufe felokys lyt
The beautiful wooden box

The modifier of material 'felokys' comes after the modifier of opinion 'xeufe'.

14. Purpose

Modifiers of purpose tend to be prepositional phrases. As such, such prepositional phrases generally appear first, immediately after the head term, when present, due to their place in the order of modifiers. These types of phrases of purpose will be discussed further when we dive further into prepositions. Modifiers of purpose are sometime derived terms using a verbal modifier, which is also something we will agrresss in a separate article. Aside form that, however, there is not much special to say about them.

15-17. Terms

The remaining positions in the noun phrase are held by terms. Modifiers are not allowed after the first term appears, except as elements in compound words functioning as terms. The terms overall exist in a grey area between separate words and compound words, with some offiical compound words simply having their origin as terms frequently found next to each other until they developed a habitual idiomatic meaning and stuck together.

15. Possessing Terms

One of the idioms of possession in Common is adposition of a term that is the possessor to its head term and any modifying terms. This type of possession is generally considered to be the most inalienable type of possession. It is common to use personal names as possessors in this construction. As a term, a possessor strictly must come after all the modifiers in the article-head term bracket and cannot leave the bracket or be expressed periphasitcally. There are two other periphrastic idioms of possession in Common, but they have completely different explanations than the adposition idiom.

A adposed possessor term feels almost like part of a compound word with the test of the terms - because of its position very close to the head term, an adposed possessor feels very intrinsic to the head term. That said, Common is not very strict about how careful to be about expresing degrees of alienability, and adposition of a possessing term might be found in all kinds of contexts.


Ja akpe Toni paluh te zeul a pikki.
The(ERG) big Tony dog hit(NP,IMP) eye the(ABS) cat

'Tony's big dog is looking at the cat.'

Notice that the personal name 'Toni' (Tony) is being used as the possessor of the dog by adposition, and since it is a term, it comes after the modifier of size 'akpe', 'big'. This order is surprising to English speakers, and a common English speaker mistake is to same tomething like 'Na Toni akpe paluh' instead of 'Na akpe Toni paluh'. By using this construction instead of one of the periphrastic constructions for a relatively alienable possession like a dog, the speaker is emphasizing that it is very important to what he is saying that the dog is Tony's.

16. Modifying Terms

Terms can be placed in front of a head term to clarify its meaning. Such terms blur the line between modification and compound words significantly, and it can be hard to disentangle the two concepts. 


Na xeufe pikki hawfil
The beautiful cat fur

This construction happens to be ambiguous. It could mean the beautiful fur that comes from a cat or the beautiful fur that belongs to a certain cat (i.e., it could also be possessive). When the modifying term is animate especially this type of ambiguity can arise. Common speakers usually do not find any particular difficulty with it, however.

17. Head Term

As noted before, a head term, or a dummy substitute 'yn', is required whenever any modifiers or modifying or possessing terms are present. The head term is the component which is the most essential to the meaning of the overall noun phrase.


The foregoing discussion has left us with many further topics to explore - among them, relative clauses, the possessive constructions of Common, derivation between parts of speech, all kinds of wordbuilding, modifiers that take other modifiers as objects, and all sorts of prepositional phrases, including those of location and purpose. The base we have established will allow us to address these topics one at a time.


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