Modification and Subordination

The easiest and most common way of developing the S V/C pattern is by adding a modifier. To modify means to change or alter. A modifier, therefore, is a word or word group that changes the meaning of another word or word group that is more basic to the sentence.


Luis eats/apples.

By adding a modifier to the complement, we can alter the meaning of "apples."


Luis eats/green apples.

We can also modify the subject.


Little Luis eats/green apples.

And even the verb.


Little Luis never eats/green apples.

Notice how the basic S V/C pattern remains even after several modifiers have been added. This is because modifiers cluster around base elements like iron filings around a magnet.

The principle that describes this relationship between modifiers and more basic sentence elements is subordination. Subordination means taking a position of lesser importance or rank. In the Army, for example, a private is subordinate to a captain and a captain to a general. Likewise, when we say a modifier is subordinate to the base element, we mean it has less importance and is dependent upon that more basic element for its claim to a place in the sentence. We can see this by looking at our last example.

Little Luis never eats green apples.

When we drop all the modifiers, we still have a sentence that feels complete.

Luis eats apples.

But when we drop the base words that the modifiers depend on, we are left with something entirely different.

Little never green.

The result is nonsense. Our minds want to process the data as a sentence, but it won't fit. We have modifiers, but we don't know what is being modified. The base elements are missing.

We've seen how these two principles, modification and subordination, join individual words in clusters. It's also worth noting how they join word groups together. Just as individual words cluster around more important ones, so the clusters they form attach themselves to more important elements. Notice how this happens in the following example.


The river was/cold.

Adding a little modification, we get this:


The recently thawed river was/icy cold.

"Recently" modifies "thawed," while the two words join together to modify "river," the base word of the cluster.

Whole sentences can be joined in this way:

Although the recently thawed river was icy cold, we dove right in.

Now the former sentence, which was also an independent clause, has become a part of a larger whole. It is now subordinate to "we dove right in," which becomes the new base clause of the sentence. Without our base clause we would be left with a subordinate element that had no independent element to depend on, like an orphan..

Modification and subordination can help you in two ways: first, they can help you understand how your sentence elements relate to each other and to the sentence as a whole; second, they're important tools for combining those elements into more complex and sophisticated sentences.