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NOUN MODIFIERS CAN MODIFY SLIGHTLY FAR AWAY NOUN

 

Introduction

 

Noun modifiers, as the name suggests, modify noun entities. They are generally placed as close to the noun entity they modify as possible to avoid any ambiguity in modification. This is necessary for the sentence to convey the logical intended meaning.

 

In practice, placing the modifier “as close to the noun entity as possible” has become placing the modifier “immediately after the noun entity” they modify. Now most of the times, this practice helps us arrive at the correct answer choice.  However, this does not mean that a “noun modifier” should ALWAYS modify the immediately preceding noun.   There are several instances in which a “noun modifier” modifies slightly far away noun.

 

However, since test takers blindly follow this practice or rule, they eliminate answer choices if they see that it does not make sense for the “noun modifier” to modify the immediately preceded noun.   And in certain instances this may result in elimination of a correct answer choice.  If you have experienced this while solving SC questions, then this article will be an eye-opener one for you.

 

Following are the two OFFICIAL EXAMPLES OF CORRECT SENTENCES in which the “noun modifiers” do not modify the immediately preceding noun. They actually modify the noun that is placed slightly far away

 

1. Emily Dickinson’s letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, which were written over a period beginning a few years before Susan’s marriage to Emily’s brother and ending shortly before Emily’s death in 1886, outnumber her letters to anyone else. (OG 13#29, Choice E)

 

In this sentence, the noun modifier which were written… correctly modifies slightly far away noun letters.  It does not modify immediately preceding noun Susan Huntington Dickinson.

 

2. Although she had been known as an effective legislator first in the Texas Senate and later in the United States House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan did not become a nationally recognized figure until 1974, when she participated in the hearings on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, which were televised nationwide. (GMAT Prep, Choice B)

 

In this sentence, the noun modifier which were televised… correctly modifies slightly far away noun hearings.  It does not modify immediately preceding noun Nixon or impeachment.

 

 

How far away modification makes sense

The above two sentences confirm that GMAC accepts the usage of “noun modifiers” modifying a slightly far away noun. This usage is not uncommon in OG and GMAT Prep SC problems. So let’s see how it makes sense for the “noun modifier” to modify a noun that does precede it.

Simple Example

Let’s start with simple sentences to understand the working behind this usage:

 

1. The committee chose Mr. Smith, who was the most experienced member, to lead all the management-related operations.

 

Needless to say that in this sentence, the relative pronoun who, a “noun modifier”, modifies  the immediately  preceding noun Mr. Smith. The relative pronoun clause is giving some extra information about Mr. Smith, the entity it modifies.

 

2. The committee chose Mr. Smith of Left Block, who was the most experienced member, to lead all the management-related operations.

 

Many of you will right away discard this sentence as “incorrect” because who is not preceded by Mr. Smith, the noun it should logically refer to. Well, this sentence is absolutely correct. There is no modification error here. Here who correctly modifies Mr. Smith.

 

This is so because the newly added prepositional phrase of Left Block is a modifier that modifies Mr. Smith. So it is placed next to that entity. This prepositional modifies the same noun entity the noun modifier who is meant to modify and cannot be placed elsewhere in the sentence without violating the structure and the meaning of the sentence. So now instead of just Mr. Smith in sentence 1, we have a noun phrase in sentence 2,  Mr. Smith of Left Block. In this scenario, who has the liberty to jump over the preceding preposition phrase (modifier) to modify the HEAD of this noun phrase Mr. Smith.

 

Additionally, who was the … cannot logically and grammatically modify the immediately preceding noun Left Block.

Complex Example

  • The National Association of Large Distribution Businesses, known as Anged, appealed to the Supreme Court in Madrid, which then asked the Court of Justice for a ruling on how to apply European law covering working times.

This is a sentence taken from an article in nytimes.com. In this sentence, the relative pronoun which is correctly modifying Supreme Court even though it is preceded by a noun entity Madrid. This modification is absolutely ‘sensical’ because the prepositional phrase in Madrid modifies the Supreme Court and cannot be placed anywhere in the sentence without violating the structure and the meaning of the sentence. In this case, we now have noun phrase the Supreme Court in Madrid and hence, which has the liberty to jump over the immediately preceding prepositional phrase (modifier) to modify the head of this noun phrase  the Supreme Court.

 

Again, logically it will not make sense for which to modify Madrid. Madrid is a place that will require where to modify it.

Official Examples

We will now discuss the correct sentences of the two official problems that we mentioned in the beginning of the article and will see how in both the sentences the noun modifier modifies the noun entity that is not placed immediately before it.

OG 13#29

1: Emily Dickinson’s letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, which were written over a period beginning a few years before Susan’s marriage to Emily’s brother and ending shortly before Emily’s death in 1886, outnumber her letters to anyone else.

Meaning

This sentence talks about ED’s letters to her sister in law SHD. These letters that were written over a period starting from a few years before Susan’s marriage to Emily’s brother and ending shortly before Emily’s death outnumber Emily’s letters to anyone else.

Modifier Analysis

In this sentence, relative pronoun which correctly modifies letters, a noun entity that is not placed immediately before which. Now letters is followed by a prepositional phrase to SHD that modifies letters. It tells us who the letters were written to. This prepositional phrase cannot be placed elsewhere in the sentence. So we have a big noun phrase preceding which – ED’s letters to SHD. In this case, which has the liberty to jump over to SHD and modify the head of the big noun phrase. This modification leads to no ambiguity at all.

 

Furthermore logically and grammatically it does not make sense to say that SHD was written over a period…Thus, the closest noun cannot be modified by this modifier.

GMAT Prep

2: Although she had been known as an effective legislator first in the Texas Senate and later in the United States House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan did not become a nationally recognized figure until 1974, when she participated in the hearings on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, which were televised nationwide.

Meaning

This sentence talks about Barbara Jordan. She was known as an effective legislator first in Texas Senate and then in US House of Representatives. However, she became nationally recognized figure in 1974, when she participated in the hearings on the impeachment of President Nixon. These hearing were televised all across the nation.

Modifier Analysis

In this sentence, we have two relative pronouns. The first relative pronoun when modifies the immediate preceding noun 1974. However, the second relative pronoun which does not follow the suit.

 

The sentence says that Jordan participated in hearings. What were these hearings about? These hearings were on the impeachment of President Nixon. The prepositional phrase on the impeachment modifies the hearings while of President Nixon modifies the impeachment. The modifiers appear after the entities (all nouns) they modify.  Hence, together we have a huge noun phrase the hearings on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.  Note that none of these prepositional phrases can be placed anywhere else in the sentence. So here, which comfortably jumps over both the prepositional phrases to modify the hearings, an absolutely acceptable usage.

 

Both the above examples explain how the relative pronouns can modify a slightly far away noun. The thing to keep in mind is that this rule is applicable to all noun modifiers. Following is an example of another GMAT Prep problem in which in the correct answer choice, a verb-ing modifier modifies a far-away noun.

 

 

3: Like the great navigators who first sailed around the Earth gathering information about its size and the curvature of its surface, astronomers have made new observations that show with startling directness the large-scale geometry of the universe. (Choice D)

 

After reading this one, almost all of you will say that gathering is a verb-ing modifier that is placed after Earth and is not preceded by a comma. Hence, it must modify Earth. This modification makes no sense because Earth did not gather information. The great navigators did. Hence, this sentence is absolutely correct. Here is why.

 

Structurally, who first sailed around the Earth is a clause. Here who stands for the great navigators. Please note that the who clause is just a noun modifier for the great navigators that cannot be placed anywhere else in the sentence. So together the great navigators who first sailed around the Earth is a big noun phrase (refer to Noun Phrase side box). Many of you may argue that this entity contains a who clause. How can we classify as a noun phrase? We can classify this as a noun phrase since it has a noun at its head.  It is of the construction – Noun + Clause.

 

The head of this big noun phrase is the great investigators. Now since the who clause that modifies the great investigators cannot be placed anywhere else in the sentence, the structure gives gathering, a noun modifier, the liberty to jump over the preceding modifier and modify the head the great investigators. Hence, gathering in this sentence is correctly modifies the great investigators.

 

Furthermore, logically Earth cannot gather information.

 

 

When far away modification is not possible

So now we know that noun modifiers not only can modify the immediate preceding noun but also can modify a slightly far-away noun. The modification completely depends on the context and the structure of the sentence. However, there can be instances where such modification will not be possible. In such cases, a noun modifier cannot jump over preceding modifiers to refer to the head of the noun phrases. Let’s take a few examples:

 

Simple Example

Let’s bring back the simple example that we discussed earlier.  In this example, it makes sense for the “noun modifier” to modify a slightly far-away noun.

 

1. The committee chose Mr. Smith of Left Block, who was the most experienced member, to lead all the management-related operations.

 

We have already seen how who correctly modifies Mr. Smith in this sentence. Compare this with the following sentence:

 

2. The committee chose Mr. Smith in the last meeting, who was the most experienced member, to lead all the management-related operations.

 

If you notice, structurally there is no difference between sentences 1 and 2. In both, Mr. Smith is followed by a prepositional phrase. However, the second sentence is not correct. Here who ends up modifying the immediately preceding noun the last meeting, resulting in modifier error.

 

This is so because in the last meeting does not modify Mr. Smith. It rather modifies the action chose. When did the committee choose? It did so in the last meeting. This prepositional phrase can actually be placed right in the beginning of the sentence, after The committee, or before Mr. Smith to convey the intended meaning. Hence, who cannot jump over the preceding noun. Notice how per the context of this sentence, the expression Mr. Smith in the last meeting is not a noun phrase. Contrast this with the noun phrase in the original sentence Mr. Smith of Left Block.

 

Complex Example

Here comes the sentence that we have already discussed earlier:

  • The National Association of Large Distribution Businesses, known as Anged, appealed to the Supreme Court in Madrid, which then asked the Court of Justice for a ruling on how to apply European law covering working times.

Compare this one with the following sentence:

  • The National Association of Large Distribution Businesses, known as Anged, appealed to the Supreme Court in 2011, which then asked the Court of Justice for a ruling on how to apply European law covering working times.

The only difference between the above two sentences is that Madrid has been replaced with 2011. Since the structure of both the sentences is identical, the modification in the second sentence is also correct, right? Wrong.

 

In this sentence, there is no way which can jump over the preceding prepositional phrase in 2011 and can modify the Supreme Court. This is so because in 2011 does not modify the noun the Supreme Court. It modifies the action in the clause appealed.  When did the NALDB appeal to the Supreme Court? It did so in 2011. Hence in 2011 actually modified appealed and not the Supreme Court, the noun that which is meant to modify. So in 2011 cannot make a big noun phrase with the Supreme Court.

 

Again, this prepositional phrase can be placed right in the beginning of the sentence, after Anged, or after appealed. Hence, in this case, it is not possible for which to jump over in 2011 to modify the Supreme Court.

 

 

Take Away

  1. Noun modifiers must be placed as close as possible to the entities they modify to convey clearly the intended logical meaning of the sentence.
  2. When the context and the structure of the sentence allow, noun modifiers can jump over preceding modifier to refer to a slightly far-away placed noun.
  3. That noun modifiers can modify a slightly far away noun has been covered in our concept named “Modifiers – Relative Pronouns”

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