Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of September 11, 1998
Premodification of Nouns by Participles

Today's topic is the modification of nouns by participles, placing the participle before the noun. For example, in "I visited their cottage, which is charming.", the noun "cottage" is modified by the subordinate clause "which is charming". In the sentence "I visited their charming cottage.", the noun "cottage" is now premodified by "charming". Last week we went over the premodification of nouns by nouns, and you are encouraged to compare the lessons.

As for the case of modification by nouns, we have to watch out for problem of uniqueness. To write "We visited their charming cottage." is fairly easy and intuitive, but slightly ambiguous, in that we do not know if the author intends to say "We visited their cottage that is charming." or "We visited their cottage, which is charming". In other words, we don't know from "We visited their charming cottage." if the cottage is the only cottage owned by them, or if they own an ugly cottage as well, and the premodifier "charming" distinguishes the buildings. If this distinction--the uniqueness--is important, it is best to avoid the premodifier. See the lesson on "that" and "which" if you are unclear about the difference between them.

Participles that end in -ing need no further commentary. Participles that end in -ed deserve a few more words. "Please give me some tea that is iced." becomes "Please give me some iced tea." In conversation (and in some writing), the -ed of "iced" is often dropped, changing iced tea to ice tea. This modifies the sense. It's not tea made of ice, it's tea that has been chilled, i.e. iced, and is now icy. With time and usage "ice tea" becomes acceptable, but I suggest that you avoid all possible ambiguities in your scientific writing. Keep the -ed.

Try these.

1. He has a mind that is interesting.
He has an interesting mind. There is no trouble with uniqueness because we can safely assume that each person has only one mind. (There may be rare cases in psychology where this does not hold, but we ignore those extreme cases.)

2. He has a mind, which is interesting.
No change. This sentence has a different sense than the one above. In #1, we are impressed by his mind. In #2, we are amazed that he has a mind. Again, this stems from the rather safe assumption that each person has one and only one mind. If we were to change this sentence to "He has an interesting mind.", we change the meaning to that of example #1.

3. Their approach is interesting and warrants longer explanation.
Their interesting approach warrants longer explanation.

4. The approach is convoluted and needs to be clarified.
The convoluted approach needs to be clarified.

5. The interaction is long ranged and cannot account for the observed behavior.
The long-ranged interaction cannot account for the observed behavior. Because long modifys ranged, and not interaction, the hyphen is used to emphasize that together the words 'long-ranged' modify interaction.

6. The nanotubes are multiwalled and adhere strongly to the substrate.
The multiwalled nanotubes adhere strongly to the substrate. I often read "multiwall nanotubes", but this is sloppy. If you intend "the nanotubes fabricated from carbon", you can write "carbon nanotubes", and everyone understands. If you intend "the nanotubes are multiwalled", to write "multiwall nanotubes" implies that they are made of "multiwall". Of course, people are not so stupid to believe that there is a new element called multiwall, but if you have a choice, it's better to be precise. People often associate the precision of your writing expression with the precision of your scientific thinking.

Back to the index page.

Created September 4, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.