Different perspectives on proper noun modifiers

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issue

  • Authors:
  • Tine Breban (Guest editor)
  • Julia Kolkmann (Guest editor)


Proper nouns used as modifiers, e.g. the Watergate scandal, a London theatre, the many Shakespeare biographies, are a common future of the English language, perhaps most strikingly visible in news headlines. Their usage increased substantially as part of a general rise in usage of premodifying nouns in the 19th and 20th centuries (Biber & Clark 2002; Rosenbach 2007; Biber et al. 2009; Biber & Gray 2011, 2016). Though part of general changes to the English noun phrase (see also Günther 2018), they stand out from other modifiers because of the special referential status of proper nouns. Where adjectival and nominal modifiers typically add further description, denoting, amongst others, subtypes (red grapes, cat food), properties (black dog, linen curtains) or evaluations (beautiful day), proper nouns in their prototypical usage refer to and identify individual people, places, organisations, etc. Used as modifiers, proper nouns retain their identifying function. In the Watergate scandal, Watergate refers to the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C and singles out one particular scandal, i.e. the scandal happening in the office complex named Watergate. The function of proper nouns can be contrasted to common nouns in premodifying position (e.g. water bed, stone cottage), which serve to classify or describe rather than single out the entity denoted by the noun phrase. The apparent incongruence of their occurrence as modifiers sparked interest not only for English, but also for other Germanic languages. The first scholars to single them out as special were Anette Rosenbach and Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm (Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Rosenbach 2005). Since then, there has emerged a small but growing body of studies on English (Rosenbach 2006, 2007, 2010; Breban 2018), Swedish (Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2009, 2013) and German (Zifonun 2010a, 2010b; Schlücker 2013, 2018), which rather than fully explaining the phenomenon raise a variety of interesting questions and topics to explore. These questions pertain to different areas of linguistics and require different empirical data and methods to answer them. This special issue brings together linguists from a variety of backgrounds to offer different perspectives on proper noun modifiers and to take proper noun modifiers as an empirical starting point to explore questions in their diverse areas of expertise.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number3
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Apr 2019