I am using the word modifier to descrive something that modifies something else. What word should I use to describe what is being modified?

For example, in the sentence,

Fat John ate slowly

Fat and slowly are my modifiers (an adjective and an adverb, respectively), but what word should I use to describe John and ate? Modifiee is not a word.


4 Answers 4


There might be a specific linguistic term. But I don't know it, and I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't one.

So how about subject? Or if that's got too many connotations for the context, perhaps target?

LATER - I'm also minded to wonder why there might not be an established term. Adjectives and adverbs are easily-identified 'modifiers', but actually a modifier can be a pretty long subordinate clause in a sentence. And the text element(s) it modifies can be complex too.

The lack of a term might simply be down to the conceptual difficulty of naming something so epen-ended. It might just be the noun next to the modifying adjective, or it might be the whole sentence excluding the modifier. All they have in common is the capacity to be modified - not a very significant attribute for most considerations.

At least with actual modifiers, you could say their capacity to modify is a defining characteristic, so it makes some sense to identify and name such a linguistic class. The things which they modify are so heterogeneous it's a bitmeaningless to lump them all together as a class with a specific name.

Cutting to the chase, I realised that the obvious candidate would be modificand if I really needed such a word, and Lo! - it turns out linguists do indeed use that term when pressed.

  • @Peter Of The Corn: I just realised why modificand eluded you in the first place. You derived the non-existent word modifee because you started by thinking of common word endings for the required sense, and -ee is certainly a standard default for common words. I started by thinking of 'techie' words like multiply. Incidentally, I just discovered while writing this that the techie rule even works to give us subtractand, but even professional mathematicians probably rarely have need to use that word! May 19, 2011 at 3:34

There is in fact a generally accepted word: head.

  • Fat John is a noun phrase and John its head.

  • Eat slowly is sometimes considered a verb phrase, and eat would be its head.

  • Computer-related is a compound adjective / adjective phrase, and related is its head.

The head of a phrase is its core, the part that determines how the phrase as a whole behaves. As you can see, the head of a noun phrase must be a word that functions as a noun, etc.

  • You're quite right. I did know of this usage, but I forgot it. Mind you, it took a while to get my head around Computer-related, and I doubt I'd have got there at all if I hadn't persevered because I knew you were bound to be right! May 20, 2011 at 12:05

Generally, such a word would simply be referred to as a noun, verb, or whatever other appellation is appropriate for it (e.g., if the modifier affects a direct object, you would just call it a direct object).

It does seem odd that although linguists seemingly have a name for everything else, there isn't a widely-used label for the thing that a modifier affects. Perhaps that's because a "modifier" doesn't actually modify anything so much as it provides more information. John is still John, whether he's fat or thin.


The word you are looking for is antecedent.

In your example, fat is an adjective and slowly is an adverb. Technically, an adjective "qualifies" a noun and an adverb modifies a verb.

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