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Department of English
Introduction to English Language Online

Unit 7: The Structure of Noun Phrases






In Unit 4, we began our exploration of grammar by considering word classes. In Units 6 and 7 we looked at how sentences and clauses are constructed. Within the clause, the elements at S, O and C are typically occupied by structures we have called noun phrases. This unit looks more closely at the structure of these phrases.

Modifiers, Heads and Qualifiers

As outlined in Unit 6, the basic structure of the noun phrase is m h q. Here are some more examples:

m

h

q

the

 

baby

 

three

 

men

in a boat

the Italian

 

expression

for coffee

the definitive wafer thin after dinner

mint

 
 

instructions

for handing in your assignment

a

wine

 

so consistently divine that, once tried, you'll be a convert for life

In principle the head of the phrase is what it is centrally about. Items at m and q tell us more about the head. Notice that other languages differ from English quite substantially in the way in which they encode information about the head. In French, adjectives such as Italian, or definitive would follow the head. In German, rules for noun phrase formation would allow, albeit in very bureaucratic style, structures such as:

die bei Einlieferung Ihres Aufsatzes zu beachtenden Anweisungen
[the on handing in your assignment to observe instructions]

Activity1

Below is a table similar to the one above. Enter the following noun phrases into it. The problem here is really just a matter of identifying the head. What precedes this is m and what follows is q.

1. An Introduction to Functional Grammar

2. Confessions of an Opium Eater

3. A Passage to India

4. The verse on the window of the room in which the bloodstain is.

5. Singapore's growing prosperity.

6. This supremely soft baby alpaca cardigan.

7. The current government's views on wage determination.

8. Young persons under 18 years of age

 

m

h

q

1.
2.

3.

4.

5.
6.
7.
8.

refer to comments

Modifiers - Determiners, Numerals and Quantifiers

The most common word in the English language, is the. It is twice as common as the next word, which in most texts is a/an (we can lump a and an together for these purposes). A noun by itself has little communicative potential. As soon as we put an article in front of it, we add significantly to its communicative potential by making it refer. The baby refers to one which speaker and hearer know about. The reason for this shared knowledge could be one of many, e.g. it has just been mentioned, or it is the baby which speaker and hearer jointly care for etc etc. The reason is less important than the fact that the speaker is presenting the reference as agreed, or specific. By contrast, a baby normally refers to one example of the class of entity known as baby but not one which is unambiguously identifiable by the hearer, so not specific. The reference is presented as not agreed or non-specific. In the following pairs of sentences, one half of each pair is strange because the presentation of the reference as either specific or non-specific conflicts with other expectations we might have about the meaning of the sentence.

1. a. Could you mind the baby for me this afternoon?

b. Could you mind a baby for me this afternoon?

2. a. She's decided to have the baby at home.

b. She's decided to have a baby at home.

3. a. Getting married and having a baby is their main aim in life

b. Getting married and having the baby is their main aim in life.

Baby is a count noun - we can say one baby, two babies, three babies etc. Count nouns, when used in the singular, require a definite or indefinite article, or another word which has the effect of establishing the reference of the noun. Some other words which do the same job of establishing noun reference, are possessives such as my, your, her etc., pointing words like this and that. In each case the use of one of these words locates the referent for the hearer and, in effect answers the question: Which one or ones does the speaker mean? As a class, such words are called determiners, because they determine reference, and articles are a sub-class of determiners.

It is also possible to use an interrogative word, e.g. which or a numeral. e.g. two or a quantifier, e.g. several to mark the reference of a noun. In the literature there is a great variety of terms used to describe these different types of modifier, and some perseverance is needed to see what different writers mean by labels such as 'determiner'. Recall that the primary grounds for allocating words to a class is distributional. This means, for example, that numerals like two would not be regarded as a sub-class of determiner for the simple reason that it is possible to have both a determiner and a numeral. We can say either two babies or the two babies. So determiners and numerals obviously occupy different potential slots in the structure of the noun phrase.

The situation with plural count nouns and non-count nouns is similar, but there is one important difference. We can say the babies to mean specific examples of the class, and we can also determine the reference of babies with words like my, these etc. But the plural of a baby may be just babies, as in He loves babies, where it appears that the reference is not marked. The same is true of a non-count noun such as music (music is non-count because we do not say one music, two musics etc.). In He loves music there appears to be nothing to determine the reference. The reason in both cases is the same; the reference is general - babies in general and music in general. There are thus three types of reference we have mentioned so far: specific, non-specific and general.

There is a lot more that could be said about determiners, but the essence of the matter is that the first element in the noun phrase is the determiner, and that this element is represented by one of a number of specific items, or non-specific items, or by an empty slot when the reference is general. Numerals follow determiners, or themselves mark the reference where no determiner is used.

m

m

h

determiner

 

other m elements

 

The

Great

Gatsby

a

new

baby

My

Beautiful

Launderette

That

-

doggie

Which

-

doggie?

French

music

Italian

cars

 

Two

men

some

[pronounced sm]

absurdly overpriced and altogether ostentatious after dinner

mints

 

Activity 2

The table is divided into five columns. Below are some noun phrases in which the words have become jumbled. Sort them out and enter the words in the correct columns. Note that although we said above that the Determiner is the first element, there are in fact sometimes predeterminers. Some of the words in the jumbled noun phrases might even go into more than one column. Remember also that some modifiers might themselves be submodified. You can comment on this.

 

 

Predeterminer

Determiner

Numeral or quant.

other m

Head

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

 

1. two white carrier-bags

2. the definitive wafer thin after dinner mint

3. those books dreary all grammar

4. perfect red the Portuguese

5. retired professors most university

6. stalks few old quite half-eaten a celery

7. country attractive a residence most

8. novel six hundred and twentieth romantic published recently her

This exercise should have shown you that the early columns, or slots, in a noun phrase are filled by just one item in each case. We do not get two determiners, or two quantifiers since they would obviously conflict. On the other hand, the slot marked Other m contains a lot of different items, and we need to look at these.

refer to comments on Activity 2

Modifiers - Adjectives and Nouns

There is a broad set of largely subconscious semantic principles at work when we order modifers between the determiner slot and the head. Generally, modifiers which are more subjective, and which can be conceived of as lying on a sliding scale, come first. Those which are more objective and binary come later. Thus we would normally say This beautiful Chinese lacquered tray rather than This lacquered Chinese beautiful tray. Beautiful is subjective and gradable, i.e. we can say more beautiful, very beautiful etc. We would not say more lacquered or very lacquered. Either the tray is lacquered or it isn't. Binary words like this are often called classifiers, since they tell us more what class or category of object the head noun is rather than about its qualities. These semantic principles of ordering are open to manipulation by individual speakers for a variety of purposes. Individual words can be shifted from less subjective to more subjective categories. If we say that a tray is 'very Chinese', we are deliberately shifting the adjective into a different category from its usual one.

Activity 3

Return to the noun phrases in Activity 2. Try inserting one word in each as follows:

1. old 2. Swiss 3. incomprehensible 4. organic 5. expatriate 6. yellow

7. 6-bedroomed 8. gripping

Try to articulate the reasons for your choice of insertion point. There may be more than one possibility in each case. How many categories of modifier do you think are needed to account for the decisions you have taken?

1.
reasons
2.
reasons
3.
reasons
4.
reasons
5.
reasons
6.
reasons
7.
reasons
8.
reasons

Note that nouns used as modifiers normally come just before the head. For obvious reasons these have a classifying function. Material nouns are often thought to be adjectives, e.g. marble steps, steel girders, plastic buttons etc. , but although they modify, most linguists still call them nouns.

The activities may suggest that noun phrases in which several modifiers are present are common. In fact they are extremely rare. Moreover, if one does happen to crop up in ordinary discourse or text, later references to the same entity will normally not repeat all the modifiers, but simply the head of the phrase. Even that may not be repeated, but instead be replaced by a pronoun. Speakers and writers usually avoid an excessive accumulation of modifiers, and encode such information either in the qualifier slot of the phrase, or by starting a completely new sentence. Heavy nominalisation, with modifiers and complicated qualifier structures, is a feature of certain genres. Consider:

modifiers modifiers modifiers head qualifier

determiner

Adjective m

Noun m

   
         

a

very attractively renovated

stone

cottage

in the centre of Llwyngwril

a

spacious

 

semi-detached

 

cottage

2 miles west of Cenarth Falls on the Newcastle Emlyn to Cardigan road.

refer to comments on Activity 3

Qualifiers

In Unit 7 we saw that the qualifier slot of a noun phrase could be filled by a number of different structures, e.g. prepositional phrases (That doggie in the window) or clauses (the Tiger Who Came To Tea). We have also seen earlier in this unit an example of a qualifier consisting of an adjectival structure involving a bound clause: (a wine) so consistently divine that, once tried, you'll be a convert for ever. In English it is not usual to place adjectives in the qualifier position, but it does happen, for example in some fixed combinations such as president elect, and in noun phrases with coordinated adjectives, e.g. a town both dirty and dangerous. By far the most common structures to fill the qualifier slot are PPs and clauses.

Activity 4

Identify and label the modifiers, head and qualifier in each of the underlined noun phrases below. You may find it necessary to do this at more than one level. An example shows this:

  modifiers head qualifier
      h - - - - - - - - -m - - - - - - h
e.g. - season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
 
1.
 
2.
 
3.
 
4.
 
5.

 

  1. When he retired he bought a house on the riviera.
  2. The old cottages across the street will be demolished soon.
  3. His long story about some obscure ancestor in New Zealand bored us to death.
  4. The concert tomorrow will be entirely choral.
  5. That big energetic Scottish full-back in the lounge can fairly move.

refer to comments on Activity 4

Activity 5

This activity revises instant identification of noun phrases. Consider each of the following as an entire item and say whether it is a noun phrase or some other type of structure.

    NP/Other?
1. The dish ran away with the spoon
2. A tasty dish to set before the king
3. Good old Yellow Pages!
4. Roadworks ahead
5. season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
6. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather oon which a mirror and a razor lay crossed
7. An indistinct daguerrotype of Rudolph Virag and his father Leopold Virag executed in the year 1852 in the portrait atelier of their (respectively) 1st and 2nd cousin, Stefan Virag of Szesfehervar, Hungary.
8. As not as calamitous as a cataclysmic annihilation of the planet in consequence of collision with a dark sun.
9.

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams.

 

refer to comments on Activity 5