12. Noun Modifiers

In English, a noun can often be used as an adjective. When this happens, it is called a noun modifier.  Noun modifiers follow the grammar rules for an adjective:


  • They have no plural form.
  • They have no possessive form.


A. The following text is a Vietnamese refugee’s account of how his community transformed a slum neighborhood in Chicago. In the first four paragraphs of this text, the noun modifiers are in bold face:


by Trong Nguyen

The business strip on Argyle Street was a disaster area. Around sixty percent of the buildings were owned by a Chinese association, Hip Sing, which had a vision in the late 1960’s of turning the area into a new Chinatown. But they had little success, because of crime and the depressed environment. Still, the Vietnamese thought it could be a good place to start our business area.


We asked the Hip Sing to rent us some abandoned storefronts. They said, “No, you’re not Chinese. This is the new Chinatown.” But I began to work closely with a Chinese manager of one of the buildings. I said, “If you can help us, we can all benefit. There aren’t that many Chinese living in the area. If you let the Vietnamese rent spaces, this area can be developed. And I can place new refugees in apartment buildings that Hip Sing owns, that have a low occupancy rate. They will shop here on Argyle street and the area will grow and develop.” He agreed.


I didn’t know anything about business in America; I could only advise refugees on social issues. But we were able to provide a translation service so that they could obtain business permits. The neighborhood began to grow.


Nearly all the businesses owned by refugees were started by families pooling their money together or borrowing from friends. The first places were restaurants and small supermarkets. As more refugees moved into the neighborhood and new businesses were springing up, the gangs, the drug addicts, and winos had fewer abandoned buildings to hang out in. As the neighborhood began to come back to life, the police sent more security. But in alleys and side streets, it was still something else.

Notice the various kinds of adjectives in the above text:


  • Simple, ordinary adjectives (late, new, good, first, small)
  • Noun modifiers (business, apartment, occupancy, translation, drug)
  • Past participle adjectives (depressed, abandoned)
  • Quantifiers (sixty percent of the buildings, little success, nearly all the businesses, more refugees, fewer abandoned buildings, more security.
  • Notice the adjective social, which is related to the noun society. In this case, we always use the adjective social; society as a noun modifier has a very different meaning�the society column in a newspaper reports on the events and gossip concerning rich and prominent people. Unfortunately, in English, it is hard to predict when you can use a noun as a noun modifier, or exactly what it will mean!

Continue reading the next three paragraphs, and try to guess at the meaning of the phrases in bold face:


Argyle Street became a kind of a beachhead where people could have a semblance of ordinary life, and it has become an international area. There are more than fifty family-owned Vietnamese businesses on the strip. There are also stores owned by Khmer, Lao, Chinese, Ethiopians, a Jewish kosher butcher, two Hispanic grocers, a black record shopand an American bar. There are Japanese, Thai, Indian and Mexican restaurants in the area. And a McDonald’s.


I remember in 1978-79, when I worked with American sponsors from the suburbs, if I said, “Why don’t you come Uptown to work with the refugees?” they would say, “No way, it’s too dangerous.” Now people from many areas like to come to Argyle Street to shop, and enjoy coming to community activities like the annual Argyle Street Festival or the Lunar New Year Celebration.


The Vietnamese restaurants do a lot of their business from tourists on weekends. Many don’t earn a lot, but they survive by family manpower. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Phan, who own the Nha Tang Restaurant, had a simple dream. They came her as boat people in 1979, and worked in a factory to save enough to make a $700 lease payment on a small storefront and open a twelve-table restaurant. His wife is a very good cook, and they charge low prices. Since they opened in 1981, they stay open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. They earn enough to keep the family well fed and have a little profit left over for saving.

Now identify four noun modifiers in the last three paragraphs of the text:


The most famous place in the neighborhood is the Mekong Restaurant, on the corner of Argyle and Broadway, which attracts many people from the suburbs and other states. The owner, Mr. Lam Ton, worked with the U.S. State Department in Vietnam.


The first year his restaurant opened, in 1983, Lam Ton lost money. The neighborhood’s reputation was still very rough. But, all of sudden, his business turned around after some Chicago newspaper people wrote very favorably about the restaurant. The Mekong brought Uptown into the limelight, especially in 1985, when a lot of media attention was given to the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.


Newspeople saw a lot of new stores with posterboards written in Vietnamese. They wrote stories emphasizing how the refugees revitalized Uptown and turned the slum area into a more beautiful place. They began calling Argyle Street “Little Saigon.”


B. Many people have problems with noun modifiers when they are in phrases connected by hyphens:


  • He has a nine-year-old daughter and a five-month-old son.
  • The company has a new five-year-plan.
  • I work in a twenty-floor office building.
  • The Phan family opened a twelve-table restaurant.

Note that in the above sentences, the noun modifiers year, month, floor and table  are not plural.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s