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Noun Phrases

At its simplest, language is used to talk about people and things. People do this by using words in a variety of ways, for example to make statements, to ask questions, and to give orders. The words chosen are arranged into groups, either around a noun or around a verb. They are called noun phrases and verb phrases.

Noun phrases tell us which people or things are being talked about. Verb phrases tell us what is being said about them, for example what they are doing.

What is a Noun Phrase ?

A Noun phrase is a phrase that plays the role of a noun. A noun or pronoun will be the head word of a noun phrase.

Noun Phrase Structure

Noun phrases consist minimally of a noun or pronoun, which acts as the head of the noun phrase. The head may be accompanied by dependent elements before or after it.

The following are examples of noun phrases :

  • music
  • summer
  • we
  • him
  • a dog
  • the old man
  • that table in the comer
  • a nice day at the beach
  • the sofa we bought in the sale

Noun Phrase Functions

Noun phrases are referring expressions and are used to refer to particular instances or general classes of people and things.

  1. Noun phrases typically function in the clause as subjects, objects, complements and occasionally as adjuncts:

    My fatherused to playthe. piano.used to playthe. piano.
    Shewasa fairly average swimmer.
    Interogatifwas foundthe next day.
  2. Noun phrases frequently occur as the complements of prepositions:

    • We usually go to our local gym at the weekends.
  3. Noun phrases also occur in the noun phrase +’s possessive determiner construction:

    • the average nieat-eatei’s diet.
    • the biotechnology department’s long-awaited new building.
  4. Other less frequent functions of noun phrases include:

    • Premodifier of adjective: The train was an hour late leaving Milan.
    • Premodifier of conjunction: Two days before we left, we still hadn’t heard pom her.
    • Premodifier of adverb: We agreed that two meetings ago.
    • Premodifier of prepositional phrase: He lives three houses along our street.
    • The ‘descriptive’ use of the ’s constructionShe watches children’s TV in the afternoon.

Noun Phrase Head

The head of a noun phrase may be a noun or a pronoun:

  1. Noun as head of noun phrase: My father worked there three years ago.>/li>
  2. Pronoun as head of noun phrase: He was a friend o f Jean ’s.>/li>

Simple Heads

A simple head consists of one noun. The following noun phrases have simple heads:

  • my sister.
  • the larger size.
  • a new home for the children.
  • a government report.
  • this year’s budget.

Compound Heads

Structure of compound nouns

Compound nouns consist of a noun head with another item (most typically a noun, but it may also be an adjective or verb) placed before it in a very close syntactic and semantic relationship.

The initial item most typically identifies a type of the class of entities denoted by the final noun. For example, a video shop is a type of shop; orange juice is a type of juice:

  • video shop
  • window box
  • blackboard
  • orange juice
  • sports centre
  • grindstone
  • petrol station
  • greyhound

The elements in compounds are closely bound to each other syntactically and cannot normally be interrupted by other elements (e.g. a motorway petrol station, not a petrol motorway station).

Compounds are therefore best considered as single heads in the noun phrase. Their typical stress pattern is with stress on the first item (petrol station, blackboard, grindstone).

Compound nouns and noun modifiers

The borderline between compound nouns and noun phrases acting as premodifiers of noun heads is not always clear.

However, the preferred stress pattern for compounds, with stress on the first item, is usually an indication that the nouns are considered as an ‘institutionalised’ unit (stressed items in bold):

  • car park
  • bus stop
  • safety helmet

The noun modifier construction has the stress on the noun head:

  • a fur coat
  • that government report
  • several volunteer
  • helpers bathroom door

Meaning of compound nouns

The compound noun structure is extremely varied in the types of meaning relations it can indicate.

It can be used to indicate what someone does (language teacher), what something is for (waste-paper basket, grindstone), what the qualities of something are (whiteboard), how something works (immersion heater), when something happens (night frost), where something is (doormat), what something is made of (woodpile), and so on.

Proper names

Compound nouns are common in proper names and titles. Most typically, these have the stress on the final noun:

  • Narita Airport
  • Headteacher
  • New York City Hall
  • Ronald Bickerton
  • The London Underground
  • Mary Prosser
  • Prime Minister

Writing compound nouns

Familiar compound nouns (usually those involving short, monosyllabic nouns) are normally written as one word:

  • postman
  • bathroom
  • lampshade

There is some inconsistency, however. Some compounds are written with a hyphen:

  • pen-friend
  • tee-shirt
  • belly-dancing

In the case of some pairs, hyphens, separate words and words joined together are all equally possible:

  • post-box
  • post box
  • postbox

Normally, if a compound is perceived as a single word, it tends to be written as a whole word without a space or a hyphen. Hyphenation is less common in American than in British English.

Noun phrases frequently occur as the complements of prepositions:
We usually go to our local gym a t the weekends.

Other categories of compound noun

Nouns combine less frequently with other units including adverbs, prepositions and other parts of speech to form compound nouns.

The most common categories of compound are nouns which are joined by of, at or in, compound nouns formed from phrasal verbs, and compound nouns which are linked by and or are otherwise hyphenated.

  1. Examples of compound nouns joined by of, at or in:

    • right-of-way
    • stay-at-home
    • brother-in-law
    • commander-in-chief
  2. Examples of compound nouns formed from phrasal verbs:

    • runner-up
    • passer-by
    • take-over
    • stand-by lay-by
  3. Noun + and + noun compounds are often called binomial phrases. The nouns in such pairs may be singular or plural in form, and are usually fixed in their order. Frequently occurring examples are:

    • aims and objectives
    • research and development
    • ladies and gentlemen
    • size and shape
    • health and safety
    • policy and resources
    • presence and absence
    • theory and practice
    • strengths and weaknesses
    • trial and error


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