Student Stumper 23: Choosing the Right Noun Postmodifier

QUESTION: Why is it wrong to say, “I have a problem to understand grammar”, but it’s correct to say, “It’s my dream to have my own restaurant”?  How do I know when an infinitive can follow a noun? What else can follow a noun to describe it better? Couldn’t I also say,”My dream of having my own restaurant will one day be a reality?”

ANSWER: The topic of noun postmodifiers threw me for a loop in a recent online lesson. I gave a rather weak explanation, and promised to follow up with a better one. Please help me sort through this, and let me know if you agree with my conclusions.

Students should first recall the components of a complete sentence: subject + predicate. In the above examples, the three basic ideas are as follows:

  1. I have a problem.  = subject + [verb + direct object]
  2. It’s my dream. = subject + [linking verb + subject complement]
  3. My dream will one day be a reality. = subject + [auxiliary verb + adverb of time + main verb + subject complement]

In order to further explain “problem” and “dream” in these three sentences, the speaker can use a noun postmodifier. In other words, we’re adding a short description directly after the noun in question.

  1. I have a problem + [postmodifier].
  2. It’s my dream + [postmodifier].
  3. My dream + [postmodifier] + will one day be a reality.

Postmodifiers can take the form of a present participle clause (-ing), a past participle clause (-ed), or an infinitive clause.

  1. I have a problem understanding grammar. [-ing participle clause]
  2. It’s my dream to have my own restaurant.  [infinitive clause]
  3. (New example) The plan etched firmly in my mind will make my dream a reality. [-ed participle clause]

The present participle has an active meaning, as in I am the one doing or not doing the understanding. The past participle has a passive meaning, as in the plan was etched in my mind. The infinitive can carry a sense of purpose, as in I plan to have my own restaurant.

As for the remaining example, my dream of having my own restaurant will one day be a reality, we see the use of a prepositional complement to further describe “dream”. With some nouns, this is an alternative to using clauses as postmodifiers.

I’m still looking into this topic. So far, the best information has come from a favorite title in my library: Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech (Pearson Longman 2002). Do you know of other resources? Do you have other thoughts on this topic? Please share them.

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