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Grammatical Forms of English Noun Phrases

A noun phrase is a phrase in which a noun functions as the head of the phrase plus any determiners, modifiers, and complements. The seven grammatical forms that appear within the internal structure of English noun phrases are:

  1. Determiners
  2. Adjective phrases
  3. Noun phrases
  4. Prepositional phrases
  5. Verb phrases
  6. Adjective clauses
  7. Noun clauses

The following sections define each of the seven grammatical forms that form the internal structure of noun phrases as well as provide examples to illustrate use.

Determiners

Determiners are the first grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Determiners include articles, demonstrative determiners, interrogative determiners, possessive determiners, quantifiers, and numerals. Determiners perform the grammatical function of determinative in English noun phrases. Determinatives provide information such as familiarity, location, quantity, and number. For example, the following italicized determiners function as determinatives within noun phrases:

  • the mug
  • an aardvark
  • a cat
  • two mice
  • this jacket
  • which witch
  • both of the clowns
  • fifth place

Determiners precede the main noun and all other modifiers and complements in English noun phrases.

Adjective Phrases

Adjective phrases are the second grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Adjectives are traditionally defined as “words that describe nouns.” Adjective phrases are defined as phrases that are formed by an adjective functioning as the head of the phrase plus any modifiers or complements. Adjective phrases perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized adjective phrases function as noun phrase modifiers within noun phrases

  • angry birds
  • a blue caterpillar
  • the naked bee
  • someone special
  • nobody very smart
  • attorney general
  • rather unpleasant consequences
  • terribly unruly school children

Adjective phrases may precede or follow the main noun in English noun phrases depending on the specific noun or pronoun functioning as the noun phrase head.

Noun Phrases

Noun phrases are the third grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Nouns are traditionally defined as “words that name people, places, things, and ideas.” Noun phrases also perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as noun phrase modifiers within noun phrases:

  • hotel room (noun phrase modifier)
  • cat food (noun phrase modifier)
  • toddler daughter (noun phrase modifier)
  • puppy chow (noun phrase modifier)
  • bathroom sink faucet (noun phrase modifier)
  • dining room table leg (noun phrase modifier)
  • dog’s bowl (determinative)
  • Poppy’s diaper (determinative)

Noun phrases always directly precede the main noun but follow determiners and attributive adjective phrases in English noun phrases.

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases are the fourth grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Prepositions are traditionally defined as “words the relate nouns, adjectives, and verbs to other words.” Prepositional phrases are defined as phrases formed by a preposition directly followed by a prepositional complement. Prepositional phrases perform the grammatical functions of both noun phrase modifier and noun phrase complement in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized prepositional phrases function as noun phrase modifiers or noun phrase complements within noun phrases:

  • the puppy with the blue collar (modifier)
  • the blanket from my grandmother (modifier)
  • twelve books on the shelf (modifier)
  • a box in the closet (modifier)
  • fear of milk (complement)
  • passion for animal rights (complement)
  • love of the game (complement)
  • president elect of the United States (complement)

Prepositional phrases always follow the main noun in English noun phrases.

Verb Phrases

Verb phrases in the form of infinitives, present participles, and past participles are the fifth grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Verbs are traditionally defined as “action or state of being words.” Verb phrases are defined as phrases that are formed by a verb plus any auxiliary verbs, particles, modifiers, or complements. Verb phrases perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized verb phrases function as noun phrase modifiers within noun phrases:

  • the vegetables to freeze (infinitive)
  • a recommended book to buy (infinitive)
  • the child shrieking loudly (present participle)
  • that howling dog (present participle)
  • a failing grade (present participle)
  • the skeleton stolen from the biology lab (past participle)
  • broken bones (past participle)
  • vegetables grilled on an open flame (past participle)

Verb phrases may precede or follow the main noun in English noun phrases.

Adjective Clauses

Adjective clauses are the sixth grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Adjective clauses are defined as subordinate or dependent clauses that consist of a subordinating conjunction in the form of a relative pronoun followed by a clause and that perform adjectival functions. Adjective clauses perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized adjective clauses function as noun phrase modifiers within noun phrases:

  • the apple that Snow White bit into
  • the woman, who is also my aunt
  • the man whose children play with mine
  • the flea market where James found the comic book
  • the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois
  • the boy whom my daughter has a crush on
  • the boy on whom my daughter has a crush
  • children who skateboard in the street

Adjective clauses always follow the main noun in English noun phrases.

Noun Clauses

Noun clauses are the seventh grammatical form that appear within noun phrases in the English language. Noun clauses are defined as subordinate clauses that consist of a subordinating conjunction following by a clause and that perform nominal functions. Noun clauses perform the grammatical function of noun phrase complement in English noun phrases. For example, the following italicized noun clauses function as noun phrase complements:

  • your belief that women and men are not socially equal
  • the fact that you scheduled the meeting without consulting me
  • our hope that no child will ever go hungry
  • the fact that you are an absolute idiot
  • my dream that all students will one day fully understand English grammar
  • the claim that the earth is flat
  • the idea that a parent would hurt a child
  • the fact that men are often physically larger than women

Noun clauses always follow the main noun in English noun phrases.

Combining Grammatical Forms

The seven grammatical forms that can appear within noun phrases can also appear in combination with other grammatical forms within a single noun phrase. For example, the following fifteen constructions are some of the possible combinations of grammatical forms within noun phrases in English:

  • Determiner – Noun
  • Adjective Phrase – Noun
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Noun
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Adjective Phrase – Noun
  • Determiner – Noun Phrase – Noun
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Noun Phrase – Noun
  • Determiner – Noun – Prepositional Phrase
  • Determiner – Noun – Verb Phrase
  • Determiner – Noun – Prepositional Phrase – Verb Phrase
  • Determiner – Noun – Noun Clause
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Noun Phrase – Noun – Prepositional Phrase
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Noun Phrase – Noun – Verb Phrase
  • Determiner – Adjective Phrase – Noun Phrase – Noun – Prepositional Phrase – Verb Phrase
  • Noun – Noun Clause
  • Determiner – Noun – Prepositional Phrase – Adjective Clause

For example:

Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Adjective Phrase | Noun
the | big, | blue | ball

Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Noun Phrase | Noun | Prepositional Phrase
a | new | table | leg | with a crack

Determiner | Noun | Verb Phrase
one | apple | to slice

Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Noun | Prepositional Phrase | Adjective Clause
twelve | angry | men | with beards | who want some more pudding

Note that more than just the fifteen constructions of the noun phrase listed above are possible in the English language.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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