Most people who have studied English in school can identify a few basic parts of speech. Most English speakers could point out the nouns, verbs, adjectives, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, or pronouns, for example, though they may struggle with some ideas like the subject or object of a sentence, or whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. Few will have heard of noun phrases.
These word categories are important in understanding how sentences work, but knowing only them is like trying to understand how the human body works by just memorising the names of bones. It’s a start, but it’s not the whole picture.
This post is the first in a series where I explore some of the fundamental ideas in English grammar. I want this to be useful to people who’ve spoken English their whole lives as well as English language learners, so I’m not going to assume much knowledge.
I will assume, for now, that you have a reasonable understanding of the basic types of words listed in the first paragraph. Follow the links for explanations if you’re not sure of any of them, then come back.
Definition and examples of noun phrases
A noun phrase is the part of a sentence that fully describes a noun. It will usually appear as the subject or object of a verb, but can appear in some unexpected places too. The main noun that a noun phrase is built around is called the head noun.
A noun phrase could be just one word long, as in the sentences
“So do you.”
It could be a noun with an article, like
“The car won’t start.”
Adjectives modifying the noun are part of the noun phrase as well:
“What is this delicious pink stuff called?”
Noun phrases can be complex, and include additional clauses and phrases (even additional noun phrases) that describe the noun:
“The first book on the pile beside my bed is the best one for you,”
contains several nested noun phrases.
I’m going to take that last sentence and break it down into its parts. For now, I’m going to ignore the verb. You may already have inferred that if there are noun phrases with adjectives then there are probably verb phrases with adverbs; you are correct! But I’m going to pretend there aren’t, because they need their own post.
The anatomy of a noun phrase
There are a few visual techniques for analysing sentences that are generally referred to as sentence diagrams. I’m going to use a fairly common one usually called a sentence tree or syntax tree. You can make these very complex and detailed, but I’m going to keep them fairly simple.
To begin with, we can immediately identify that the subject and object phrases of the sentence above must both be noun phrases.
So we can begin to break it down from this:
But, obviously, that NounPhrase1 has nouns in it. So let’s look deeper.
The word on, in this context, is a preposition. But it’s meaningless on its own; something can’t be on nothing. For on to mean anything, we have to be able to say what thing we are on. That thing (“the pile beside the bed“) is referred to as the object of a preposition (or prepositional object, either is fine).
So we call the preposition (on) plus the thing that we are on (the object of the preposition) a prepositional phrase. In NP1, the object of the preposition on is another noun phrase:
And, because we’re getting the hang of it, we should immediately notice that NP3 also contains a prepositional phrase, with a noun phrase as its object:
Luckily, NP2 is a little simpler. But we can see that there’s also a prepositional phrase there, with a very simple noun phrase included:
Head nouns explained
As I mention above, every noun phrase has a head noun, the noun that the entire noun phrase is describing. In English, the head noun is almost always found near the start of the phrase (after any articles or adjectives that would normally come before a noun). It’s not difficult to find the head nouns in each of the noun phrases in our example sentence.
NP1: The first book on the pile beside the bed
NP2: the best book for you
NP3: the pile beside the bed
NP4: the bed
That last example might seem trivial, but it’s still important to remember that a pronoun can be the head of a noun phrase. It’s not difficult to find examples where a long noun phrase has a pronoun as its head:
“You, the one on the right, step forward.”
In this noun phrase, ‘you’ is the head noun, and ‘the one on the right’ is a subordinate clause, an interesting and important part of a sentence that I’ve completely avoided mentioning until now, and which deserves its own post!
A noun phrase, we now know, is a part of a sentence that completely describes a noun (the head noun). It could contain a single noun or pronoun, but can be much longer and more complex than that. A noun phrase might contain articles and adjectives, along with prepositions, conjunctions, and a variety of other phrases and clauses, including more noun phrases.
Since a noun phrase can contain noun phrases which can also contain noun phrases, there’s no limit to how long a noun phrase could be and still make grammatical sense (except, of course, the limit of patience). A noun phrase is always the subject of a verb, as well as the objects of transitive verbs. They are also the objects of prepositions, and at least one would be found in any clause. They are one of the most common, and most important, ways that we put words together in English.
More examples of noun phrases
As I said right at the start, the simplest places that noun phrases can appear is as the subject or object of a sentence. But I also said they can crop up unexpectedly at times. Any time you ever see a noun or pronoun in a sentence, you have yourself a noun phrase.
“Another week, another round of UN sanctions against North Korea.” — “Beijing’s balancing act over North Korea”, BBC News, September 12 2017
“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh.” — Dracula by Bram Stoker
“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head.” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
“It‘s tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time, it‘s tricky.” — “It’s Tricky” by Run-DMC
Got good examples of tricky sentences and noun phrases? Got questions about them? Want to say something rude about my taste in music? Leave a comment below!