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A noun phrase consists essentially of a noun or noun-like word which acts as the nucleus,
or head, of the phrase. Sometimes the noun appears on its own; more often it is
accompanied by one or more other constituents: determiner(s); pre-modifying adjectives,
participles or nouns; post-modifying phrases and (relative) clauses.

Cakes taste delicious.
The cakes taste delicious.
All the cakes taste delicious.
All the chocolate cakes taste delicious.
All the chocolate cream cakes taste delicious.
All the chocolate cream cakes in the shop window taste delicious.
All the chocolate cream cakes that you can see in the shop window taste delicious.

Grammatical Functions

The noun phrase is the main construction which can appear as subject, object, or
complement of a clause.

e.g. My younger brother is an architect. (subject)
He designed my new house. (direct object)
He is the architect responsible for the tower in the city centre. (subj. complement)

Noun phrases can also function as adverbials.

this morning.
e.g. I went to church last night.
the day before yesterday.

Noun phrases can also be found embedded in other structures:

They can function as complement of a preposition in a prepositional phrase.

e.g. There are lots of traffic jams in the centre of town..

The prepositional phrase here functions as an adverbial.

e.g. Traffic jams in the centre of town are especially bad.

The prepositional phrase here functions as a post-modifier of the head noun jams.The
noun phrase embedded in this prepositional phrase is thus subordinate to the main noun

They can also appear in relative clauses, again subordinate to the main noun phrase and
forming part of the post-modification of its head noun.

e.g. The book that the History teacher gave her students last week was very interesting.

Note that each of the noun phrases (in bold) functions as an element within the relative
clause ~ subject (the History teacher), indirect object (her students) and adverbial (last
week) ~ but they are subordinate to the main noun phrase, just as the relative clause itself
is subordinate to the main clause.

Finding the head

There is often more than one noun in a noun phrase. How can we decide which is the

The boy with the book seems hungry.

One test is to see which noun controls the verb. In this case, it must be boy:

The boys with the book seem hungry.
The boy with the book seems hungry.

Also, we can see which noun phrase is essential to complete the meaning of the clause.
Boy fits, whereas book does not: The boy seems hungry. *The book seems hungry.

Simple and complex noun phrases

The word phrase normally refers to a group of words which work together as a clause
element. But quite often a phrase may consist of only one word - in the case of noun
phrases, the head noun. It may seem odd to talk about a noun phrase consisting of just a
single noun. The reason is that this noun always has the potential to be expanded into a
larger phrase.

I like books.
I like those books.
I like those red books on the table.

A simple noun phrase is most commonly made up of a single noun or a determiner and
e. g. England is a magical kingdom, John hates dogs, Pollution is a Problem
Those cats are making a noise. A computer will solve your problems.

If other constituents are present, we have a complex noun phrase.
This distinction is based on the fact that there are a fixed number of determiners, and these
are used to express a very small range of meanings (such as quantity, etc.). By contrast,
the number of items which can appear as the other constituents is theoretically unlimited -
as is suggested by this advertising caption.

Why do you think we make Nuttall's Mintoes
such a devilishly smooth cool creamy minty
chewy round slow velvety fresh clean solid buttery taste?

Several sentences can be converted into one complex noun phrase, so it is very useful to
understand how to construct them, so as to be able to summarise more effectively, and
know how to condense long strings of sentences into fewer sentences. Good use of noun
phrases will also improve your style and help to make your writing more sophisticated. In
speaking, we do not tend to use long noun phrases, and indeed, to do so would make our
speech sound highly unnatural, but in writing, it is important.

The constituents of the noun phrase

No matter how complex a noun phrase is, it can be analysed into one or more of these four

The determiner(s), the head, the premodification, the postmodification

The head

This is the obligatory item, around which any constituents cluster. The head controls the
concord with other parts of the sentence. It is most commonly a noun.
There are several kinds of 'noun-like' words which can also function as the head of a noun
phrase. The main category is the pronoun.

The three cats are eating the meat.
They are eating it.
Note that They and it considered noun phrases even though they are single words.
Note also that the traditional label pronoun is rather misleading. A 'pronoun' does not refer
only to a noun, but to a whole noun phrase. In the above example, they replaces more than
just the word cats: we do not say *The three they!

A few kinds of adjectives can also function as the head of a noun phrase.

The Chineseare more numerous than the Welsh.
We're collecting many for the blind.
The elderly are especially vulnerable to the cold.


e.g. My sister lives a villa in thesouth of France.

These can be further subdivided into predeterminers, central determiners and
postdeterminers. The chart on the following page shows the main types of words that fit
these categories. Central determiners are by far the most common type of determiners.

Other words sometimes appear before the determiner, defining the meaning of the noun
These restrictive words include such adverbs as just, only, and especially.

Only the two cakes were left. It's just a cat.

Many determiners can also be premodified by intensifiers:

hardly any money far too much time almost all my friends less than ten per cent

virtually no trees so very little milk more than half his ideas no fewer than twenty dogs



Central determiners

all, both, half
all the people
both the cats
half the gold

N.B. all, both and half can be used
Without a following noun. They
then have to be analysed as
e.g. Give me half
Both arrived
Some predeterminers can be
followed by of in which case they
are also analysed as pronouns:
e.g. all of the people
half of it
All and both as pronouns can also be
used after the head noun and even
later in the clause, after the first
auxiliary verb:
e.g. All the people were asked.
The people all were asked.
The people were all asked.

double, twice, three times
double your money
twice the cost

a quarter, two-thirds, etc
one-third the time
a quarter the amount

such, what (used in
exclamations) e.g. Such a fuss!
What a nice day!
a/an (indefinite article)
the (definite article)

this, that, these, those

my, your, his, her, our, their

Wh - determiners:
(whether as interrogatives or
what, which, whose, whichever,
whatever, whosever
Which house do you prefer?
What time is it?
They hate whatever music I play..
He has chosen what book to read.

Indefinite determiners:
some, any, no.
Would you like some more wine?
Have you got any children?
There's no easy solution.
every, each, either, neither
We need to interview each student
Parking is permitted on neither
side of the street.
There's not enough time left
Cardinal numbers:
one, two, three
my three fat cats
the fifty sheep
the 101 dalmations

Primary ordinals:
first, second, third
the first Sunday of the month
my third coffee this morning.

General ordinals:
last, next, another, other,
both her other daughters
the last big party
another fine mess you got me into

Primary quantifiers:
many, much, several, few, little,
his many hobbies include trainspotting
your several pets
the little information you gave me
his few ideas
I wish you much happiness

Informal quantifiers:
(a noun plus of)
lot of, number of, loads of,
bags of, great deal of
a lot of books, loads of money.
There's been a great deal of interest in
Jos Saramago.


Any words appearing between the postdeterminer and the head of the noun phrase are said
to premodify the noun. They give the more permanent features or characteristics of the
There are three main types of premodifiers.

i) Adjectives

a lovely day a small round table

Adjectives that precede the head are called attributive adjectives. They usually state its
more permanent features.

I visited his delightful cottage = His cottage is delightful.
He is a responsible boy = He is always responsible.
Compare this with:
He is the boy responsible.(for the act of vandalism) ~ responsible here refers to a single

A premodifying adjective can itself be premodified by intensifying words, usually
adverbs. .
e.g. You sounded terribly anxious on the phone.
That's a very good point.
She's an extremely nice girl.

Plural expressions in compound adjectives
When expressions of measurement are used as adjectives in premodification, they are
normally singular:
a ten-pound note a three-metre drop a forty-five-minute tape
a six-month-old baby a five-star hotel a hundred-watt bulb

ii) Participles (-ing / -ed)

These function like attributive adjectives.

a crumbling wall a stolen car
a winding lane a broken watch

Nouns and -ed participles can be compounded (with a hyphen).
e.g. a tree-lined avenue = an avenue lined with trees
the spray-drenched cliffs = cliffs drenched with spray
the sea-smashed rocks = rocks smashed by the sea

Some items in -ed are not participles at all but are directly formed from nouns.
e.g. hedgerowed lanes = lanes with hedgerows
a wooded hillside = a hillside (covered) with woods
a vaulted roof = a roof with a vault
a red-haired child = a child with red hair
a short-sleeved shirt = a shirt with short sleeves

iii) Nouns / Compound nouns

those country roads a tourist attraction

Premodifying nouns come immediately before the head. They are often so closely
associated with the head that they combine with it to form a single semantic unit, known
as a compound noun.

e.g. some new traffic lights a bustling city centre the capital city of France

Often, the first noun classifies the second, telling us more about it.
Thus, a race-horse = a kind of horse
a horse-race = a kind of race

Many compound nouns are hyphenated: e.g. air-conditioning, baby-sitter, letter-box
Others are written as one word: e.g. farmland, fireplace, weekend, seafood, holidaymakers
There are no fixed rules governing how many compound nouns should be written and
even dictionaries disagree. When in doubt, just try to be consistent in the form you choose.

Some premodifying nouns are equivalent to reduced postmodifying prepositional phrases.
e.g. the cupboard door = the door of the cupboard
a Yorkshirevillage = a village in Yorkshire
the abortion question = the question of abortion

Genetives can also be used to premodify the head.

e.g. Johns father is retired.
e.g. We spent our holiday in an old fisherman's cottage.

Notice here that the last noun phrase is ambiguous - the cottage could either be old and
once belonged to a fisherman, or it is still occupied by a fisherman, who is old.

There are also some less common types of premodification, such as the use of phrases
and clauses:
We have a round-the-clock service here
She's asked I don't know many people
The agreement follows months of behind-the-scenes negotiations
You'll need to go to that do-it-yourself (D.I .Y.) shop down the road
Order of premodifiers

Premodifying words normally come in short sequences of between one and three words.

e.g. I put on a clean new shirt. We chose some bright blue wallpaper.

They can appear in longer sequences, especially in rather literary written descriptions.
He lives in a charming little crumbling thatched cottage on the coast.
The museum owns several priceless nineteenth-century French impressionist paintings.
He swallowed down the whole loathsome dark evil-smelling potion.

It is very important to realise that lengthy sequences of adjectives can make the language
seem very stilted and unnatural (especially if used when speaking). As a word of warning
it is not advisable to string too many premodifiers together. Such rules as do exist
regarding order of premodifiers are frequently not strictly observed, even by educated
native speakers.

However, there are certain restrictions on the order of premodifiers, and these apply just
as much to a short sequence as to a longer one.
A nice big cardboard box *a cardboard big nice box

The various types of premodifiers can be divided into four main categories, as shown in
the following example:
Ive got the same big red garden chairs as you have.

I Adjectives with an absolute or intensifying meaning come first in the precentral
zone: same, certain, entire, whole, etc.

II Other adjectives come next, in the central zone: big, slow, angry, helpful, etc.

III Participles and colour adjectives come in the postcentral zone: missing, stolen,
deserted, red, green, etc.
IV The following come in the prehead zone:

nouns ~ e.g. tourist (agent) , telephone (box) , traffic (lights)

adjectives denoting origin or material. e.g.Gothic (cathedral), American (tourist)

-ing participles (gerunds), denoting the purpose of the head noun.
e.g. writing (desk) , playing (cards) , watering (can) , sitting (room)

adjectives (often ending in al) that denote what the head noun is directly
related to (denominals).
e.g. political (crisis) , social (life) , medical (records) , historical (novel)
N.B. Such adjectives can usually only be used attributively (before a noun).

Most adjectives cannot be easily classified in terms of their meaning, since they express a
vast range of concepts. However, certain broad categories of meaning can be identified and
their order in the premodification sequence can be charted.

Value /
Size Age Shape Colour Origin Material Com-
Two lovely black leather riding boots
A priceless



Their huge circular
swimming pool
My Japanese wooden salad bowl
Those dirty old metal garden chairs
Our Tiny L-shaped living room
Her pretty Victorian writing desk
A prehistoric stone sacrificial altar
His charming little white country cottage

It is important to stress that such rules should be treated more as guidelines, especially
when there are several premodifiers in a string. There is often considerable flexibility and
such rules as do exist are governed by usage what sounds right. General adjectives
with meanings other than those in the chart above are harder to place but would most
likely come somewhere between age and colour.

Any words appearing after the head noun within the noun phrase are said to postmodify
the noun.
Unlike the premodifiers, they often express less permanent characteristics of the head.

There are three main kinds of postmodification:

i) Prepositional phrases:

These are by far the most common type.
the car in the garage the boy by the tree the elegant arches of the monasteries

ii) Finite relative clauses:

The most complex kind of postmodification in the noun phrase is a finite relative clause
introduce by the following relative pronouns:-who(m), whose, which, that, or 'zero'.

Defining/Restrictive relative clauses:
e.g. The car that was parked on the pavement was towed away
The relative clause here is essential to the meanings as it defines which specific car. The
implication is that there are other cars on the scene which were not towed away.

Non-defining/Non-restrictive relative clauses:
e.g. My car, which was parked on the pavement, was towed away.

Here the relative clause gives non-essential, extra information about the car, which can be
omitted without affecting the head noun's identity (already defined by My). The noun
phrase thus refers here to one single car only - there is no implication of other cars on the
scene. Notice the commas are used to signal the information break that would feature in
speaking. The context usually makes the meaning clear but correct punctuation is
important so as to help the reader understand the intended meaning.

My brother who's abroad has sent me a letter (i.e. my other brothers haven't)
My brother, who's abroad, has sent me a letter (i.e. he is the only brother I have)

Such relative clauses are said to be finite because the (first) verb in the relative clause (in
the above example 'was') shows concord (agreement) with the head noun (in this case 3rd
person), and also indicates tense (in this case past simple)

Choosing the right kind of relative clause can be critical. Compare the following

a) Snakes which are poisonous should be avoided.
b) Snakes, which are poisonous, should be avoided

The use of the defining/restrictive clause in a) implies that only some snakes are
poisonous, which is true. But the use of the non-defining/non-restrictive clause in b)
implies that all snakes are poisonous, which is false.

Non-defining relative clauses are mainly found in written English, where sentences are
carefully constructed. In spoken English, they sound rather formal, and can easily be
expressed by simpler sentences. Compare the following:

Did you know Mrs. Jones has left all her money to a cats' home? It's incredible, really. She
was an extremely mean person while she was alive. (Informal, spoken)

Mrs. Jones, who was an extremely mean person while she was alive, has left all her money
to a cats' home. (formal, written)

Relative pronouns

Here are the main forms used:
Defining/Restrictive relative clauses:
Person Thing
Subject who or that which or that
Object who / that or 'zero' (omitted) which / that or 'zero' (omitted)
Possessive whose whose

Nondefining/non-restrictive relative clauses:
Person Thing
Subject ,who , ,which ,
Object ,who(m) , ,which ,
Possessive ,whose, ,whose ,

In many sentences, the relative pronouns act as clause elements (within the relative clause).
e.g. The boy who saw the cat has gone home. Who saw the cat? The boy saw the cat.
Here, who and the boy are subjects of their clauses.

In the following sentence, however, the relative pronoun acts as an object element:
The car that I bought has gone wrong. What did I buy? I bought the car.
The relative pronoun can here be omitted: The car I bought has gone wrong (='zero' pronoun)

When the personal relative pronoun who acts as the object in the clause, there is divided usage. In
formal speech and writing, whom is preferred. In informal contexts, people use who or 'zero' (the
most common)
That is the man whom I saw (formal)
That's the man (who) I saw (informal)

Prepositions can come either before pronouns or at the end of a relative clause. In spoken English,
it is much more common to put the preposition at the end (and to drop the pronoun).
That's the man to whom I spoke. (formal)
That's the man (who) I spoke to. (informal)
This is the book I was talking to you about. (informal)

A second relative clause introduced by and or but usually takes a wh-pronoun, not that.
e.g. Someone that I greatly admire, but who I 've never met, is Professor Hawking.

When and where(adverbs, not relative pronouns) can be used to introduced both types of
relative clause. In defining relative clauses, when can be omitted.
Can you tell me the exact time (when) you hope to arrive.
Where cannot be omitted unless we add a preposition.
That's the hotel where we're staying = That's the hotel we're staying at.
In non-defining relative clauses, when and where cannot be omitted.
The 19th century, when Dickens was writing, was a period of social upheaval.
He shop's in Oxford, where his sister lives.

iii) Nonfinite (relative) clauses:

-ing participle clauses
e.g. the man running away there are some apples rotting inside our garden shed

Nonfinite clauses are not so explicit as finite equivalents.

Take, for example: The man writing the obituaries is a talented journalist.

Since the nonfinite -ing participle does not indicate tense, we have to rely on the context to
tell us when the action takes place. Indeed the above could be expressed using no less than
six different finite relative clauses:
will write / be writing
e.g. The man who is writing the obituaries is a talented journalist.
was writing

Nonfinite clauses are thus often themselves modified by adverbials so as to make the
context clear.
The man writing the obituaries when I came into the office was behind schedule.
The man writing the obituaries for the Queen will have to be a talented journalist.
The man writing the obituaries in this 1923 edition of the Times was clearly a
talented journalist.
The man writing the obituaries over there in the corner is a talented journalist.

-ed participle clauses:
e.g. the car parked in the street a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and lights

Notice again how the nonfinite clause is not so explicit as a finite equivalent.
e.g. Any coins found on this site must be handed to the police.

This nonfinite clause could mean 'that are found' (at any time), 'that may be found' (in
the future) or 'that were found' (in the past).

To infinitive clauses:
e.g. the film to get out on video is 'Titanic'. The man to see about timetables is Patrick.
= the film that you should get out = The man for you to see

Non-defining/nonrestrictive postmodification:
The nonfinite clauses illustrated above are all defining the head noun. However, as with
finite relative clauses, nonfinite clauses can also be non-defining/nonrestrictive.
e.g. The apple tree, swaying gently in the breeze, had a good crop of fruit.
The substance, discovered almost by accident, has revolutionised medicine.

N.B. We could say that the non-finite clauses here function as adverbials. Indeed, they
could appear at the beginning of the sentences and still communicate the same meaning,
though they would then no longer be part of the noun phrase.
e.g. Swaying gently in the breeze, the apple tree had a good crop of fruit.
Discovered almost by accident, the substance has revolutionised medicine.

Minor types of postmodification
i) Adverbs & Adverb phrases:
(Time reference) a day later, a year ago, my appointment the following day
(Place reference) the weather outside, the journey back, the road that way, the form below.

ii) Postpositive adjectives / adjective phrases:
something different, I wish to see the boy responsible, there's nothing interesting on TV
Students good at athletics should attend a meeting today.
Cornwall is an area of England rich in history.

Such postmodifying adjective phrases can usually be treated as reduced or verbless
relative clauses:
e.g. the boy responsible = the boy who is responsible
students good at athletics = students who are good athletics.
A limited number of noun-adjective phrases (modelled on French) always follow the
e.g. heir apparent, president elect, attorney general
Such combinations are rare and are treated by the speaker as single semantic units like
compound nouns.

iii) Noun phrases:
e.g. the party last night, in this address this morning the President denied the

Multiple modification

Often, more than one construction is used as part of the postmodification:
e.g. the car / with a red roof / parked outside / which you liked /

But sequences of this kind can become clumsy, and they must be used carefully to avoid
Compare: The man in the corner looking at the picture (i.e. the man is in the corner)
The man looking at picture in the corner (i.e. the picture could be in the corner)

The ambiguity in the second sentence arises because it is not clear whether in the corner
relates to man or picture.

Co-ordination of noun phrases

Two or more noun phrases can be combined together to form a compound noun phrase.
Typically, noun phrases are co-ordinated explicitly by means of a co-ordinator. The usual
co-ordinators for noun phrases are and and or.

If co-ordinators are present the co-ordination is said to be syndetic:

England is a magical kingdom where mystery and history blend with the prosaic and
the present
Whether the scene is a ruined castle or a bustling city street
It has been permeated for centuries with the charm, serenity and excitement that make
it peculiarly English.

Notice that in lists of more than two noun phrases, it is normal for the co-ordinator to
appear only between the last two phrases.
e.g. Mr. Mandela has in turn been activist, prisoner, martyr, statesman and conciliator.

If co-ordinators are are repeatedly used between each pair of noun phrases in long
sequences, the co-ordination is said to be polysyndetic:
e.g. Tomorrow a change in air pressure will bring thunder and sheet lightning and heavy

When co-ordinators are omitted (for stylistic effect) but could be inserted, the co-
ordination is said to be asyndetic.

e.g. windswept moors, lush green meadows, sea-drenched cliffs, bustling cities - England
has them all.

Sentential relative clauses

Sentential relative clauses do not postmodify nouns, but in their form they resemble
other sentential relative clauses refer back to whole sentences, or parts of the preceding
sentence, not just to nouns. Unlike all other types of relative clause, they are
ADVERBIALS, forming a complete and separated adverbial sentence element.

e.g. This morning my dog refused to go for his normal walk, which very much surprised
The train arrived ten minutes early, which is unheard of in the whole history of that
railway line.

Noun phrases in apposition

Apposition is another instance of two noun phrases acting together as a single element in
a clause.
The difference between apposition and co-ordination is that two noun phrases in apposition
have the same meaning.

e.g. I saw my brother, the town clerk. Mr.Smith, my neighbour, called to see me.

Types of apposition:
i) The two noun phrases are equivalent in meaning, with one providing the name or
specific identy of the other: (see the two examples above)

ii) One noun phrase provides a rewording of the other:
e.g. He's a philologist - that is, a linguist.
Linguistics, or the study of language, attracts many students.
He sent his reply, namely, a letter.

iii) One noun phrase express an attribute of the other:
e.g. I saw the manager, a rather serious, tight-lipped man.

iv) One noun phrase includes the other: e.g. I like big epic films, for example 'Gandhi'
Appositive clauses

The appositive clause resembles the relative clause in being introduced by that, and being
either defining/restrictive or non-defining/nonrestrictive. It differs in that the particle that
is not an element in the clause structure (subject, object, etc) as it must be in a relative
clause. It differs also in that the head of the noun phrase must be an abstract noun such as
fact, proposition, belief, idea, opinion, remark, etc
The belief that Portugal should have regionalisation is very widespread among young
The fact that I hate anything to do with America has nothing to do with it.

Here that means "which is that".
To test that it is an appositive clause try linking the apposed units with the verb be.
e.g. The belief is that Portugal should have regionalization.
The fact is that I hate anything to do with America.

Compare the following two sentences:

The story that I had written was published.
The story that I had resigned was spread around.

The first is relative (that can be replaced by which); The second is appositive (that
means "which is that ", but cannot be replaced by which). In the second story means

There are also cases of appositives with of:
The problem of vandalism is getting worse.
The government is worried about the question of raising taxes.
The bustling capital city of London lies in the Thames Basin.

Again the two apposed units can be linked with the verb be.
e.g. The problem is vandalism. The question is raising taxes. The capital city is