What is a Noun Phrase and How to write One?

In this post, we’ll cover ins and outs of noun phrase.

What’s a noun phrase?

Also called nominal phrase, a noun phrase is a phrase that has a noun as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as a noun in a sentence, implying that the noun phrase can be a subject, object, subject complement, etc. in a sentence. In real-world writing, most subjects, objects, and other noun placeholders are actually noun phrases – and not one-word nouns. If you recall, a phrase, unlike a clause, is a group of words that doesn’t have both a subject and a verb.

Consider these two sentences (comments that go with examples are in square brackets):

Mr. Smith attended his graduation ceremony. [Comment: Noun as subject]

His two distant aunts from England attended his graduation ceremony. [Noun phrase as subject. It has aunts as its head word.]

Note: In all the examples, noun phrase has been underlined, with its head word in bold.

In the first sentence, the noun Mr. Smith is the subject. In the second, the noun phrase His two distant aunts from England is the subject. First things first, it’s a phrase because it has more than one word without having both subject and verb in it. And it’s a noun phrase because it has a noun, aunts, as its head word. (How to form noun phrases like these is covered later in the post.)

Let’s look at another set of examples of noun and noun phrase, this time in the object position.

I switched on the laptop. [Noun as object]

I switched on the silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me last year. [Noun phrase as object. It has laptop as its head word.]

In simple words, you can understand a noun phrase to be workers that have come together under the leadership of a noun to accomplish the role of subject, object, subject complement, etc.

A pronoun can be the head word in a noun phrase

That’s because pronouns can replace nouns.

Although rare, a pronoun too can head a noun phrase. Pronouns, however, don’t take premodifiers, and hence you won’t find any words before the pronoun. Some pronouns can take postmodifiers though:

Those who don’t do the assignments will struggle in the exam.

In coordinate noun phrases, there is no head noun

A noun phrase can have two or more nouns joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, etc.). In such cases, the nouns are weighted equally and hence none is a head noun. Examples:

Tom and the irrepressible Jerry have given joy to millions with their antics. [None of Tom and Jerry are head nouns as they’re weighted equally.]

You can pay through cash or card. [None of cash and card are head nouns.]

How to identify noun phrase in a sentence?

With practice, you’ll automatically start identifying noun phrases in sentences. But a quick, easy way to identify one is to see which word in the phrase can replace the entire phrase while still making sense of the sentence. Let’s take the example of sentence we saw earlier.

I switched on the silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me last year.

If you retain one word at a time in the phrase silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me last year, only this one would make sense:

I switched on the laptop.

You can draw two inferences from this:

  • silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me last year is a noun phrase because it can be replaced by a noun.
  • The noun laptop is the head word in the phrase silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me last year.

How to write noun phrases?

A noun phrase is a phrase that has a noun as its head word and one or both of a premodifier and a postmodifier. As the names suggest, a premodifier comes before the noun and a postmodifier comes after the noun.

Noun phrases are the most complex of all phrases: they come with wider variety of premodifiers and postmodifiers than other phrases.

Note that in all the examples, the noun phrase has been underlined and the head word, a noun, highlighted in bold.

Premodifiers

A noun phrase can have none or more of determiner, number, and adjective as premodifiers.

1. Determiner

Determiner is a word that comes before a noun to indicate quantity or to specify what the noun refers to. They comprise of:

  • Quantifiers such as many, much, more, some, few, number of, and lot of
  • Articles a, an, and the [Whereas a and an quantify, the specifies.]
  • Demonstrative pronouns this, that, these, and those [They specify.]
  • Possessives such as my, his, her, its, our, their, Tom’s [They specify.]

Number of experts have contested the claim. [Quantifier]

I’ve been to London few times. [Quantifier]

The man in grey t-shirt is my neighbor. [Article]

I had an apple as evening snack. [Article]

These buildings are more than three-decade old. [Demonstrative pronoun]

That phone is mine. [Demonstrative pronoun]

Our turn is yet to come. [Possessive pronoun]

Tom’s portfolio comprises of bank deposits and shares of companies. [Possessive]

2. Number

I’ve two phones.

The tycoon owns four cars.

3. Adjective

The old house was visited by spirits after midnight.

The old, decrepit house was visited by spirits after midnight. [Two adjectives]

Note that these premodifiers are placed before a noun in following sequence: determiners followed by numbers followed by adjectives. Examples:

His three old cars have been sold off. [Determiner > number > adjective]

These two sleek phones belong to me. [Determiner > number > adjective]

Postmodifiers

A noun phrase can have none or more of these as postmodifiers.

1. Adverb

The patient ahead needs to see a doctor urgently.

The person behind looks a suspicious character.

2. Infinitive phrase

I’ve a flight to catch.

I don’t have anything to do.

3. Participial phrase

The boy wearing white shirt will captain the team in tomorrow’s match.

The player wiping the ball on his trousers is a replacement for Tom.

4. Prepositional phrase

The boy in white shirt will captain the team in tomorrow’s match.

The man with a limp was the main suspect in the crime.

5. Relative clause

A phrase can contain a clause and still remain a phrase. Note that a phrase is determined by its head word, which is a noun here.

The boy who sits next to me got 80 percent marks in math.

The silver-color laptop that my grandmother gifted me four years back works fine.

Let’s try writing few noun phrases with the head word phone.

A phone [Premodifiers: A]

A sleek phone [Premodifiers: A/sleek]

A sleek phone with two cameras [Premodifiers: A/sleek, Post modifiers: with two cameras]

A sleek phone that cost me a bomb [Premodifiers: A/sleek, Post modifiers: that cost me a bomb]

How do you know where a noun phrase begins and ends?

I’ve seen students facing challenge in deciding the exact group of words, especially long ones, that form a noun phrase. Let’s take these two examples we saw earlier.

The player wiping the ball on his trousers is a replacement for Tom.

The man with a limp was the main suspect in the crime.

People can easily identify the head noun player and man, but may struggle to locate the entire phrase. A simple test is to replace the suspected phrase by a pronoun and see if the sentence makes sense. Let’s assume that we think The player wiping the ball and The man are the noun phrases. Let’s replace each with a pronoun.

He on his trousers is a replacement for Tom.

He with a limp was the main suspect in the crime.

They sound awkward and don’t make sense, which means we erred in our choice of the phrase. The two noun phrases actually are The player wiping the ball on his trousers and The man with a limp. Let’s replace each with a pronoun once again.

He is a replacement for Tom.

He was the main suspect in the crime.

They make sense now, don’t they? Another example:

Assume the role you’re applying for to be your dream job.

Assume it to be your dream job.

Examples of noun phrase

Here are examples of noun phrase by the positions they hold in a sentence. Out of these, you’ll find them most frequently in the object (of verb) position followed by subject and object (of preposition) positions.

1. Subject

The ferocious warrior fought till his last breath.

The lion’s desire to have a free meal was foiled by the crocodiles, who dragged the carcass into the river.

Your performance in today’s match bettered our expectations.

The next president will have to take immediate steps to revive the economy.

2. Direct object of verb

The disease can cause irreversible damage to our bodies.

Can you show me the book on the top left corner of upper shelf?

I’ll take thin-crust pizza with veggies.

The burglars cut open the window at the back of the house.

3. Indirect object of verb

We’ll give your valuable suggestions due consideration.

The receptionist presented the person who entered the lobby with posse of security guards a bouquet.

Peter sent his 10-year-old granddaughter a gift.

4. Object of preposition

Everyone wants to associate with a person of higher social or economic status.

Can you show me the book on the top left corner of upper shelf?

I care for my old friends, who’ve stood by me in thick and thin.

He hit the ball so hard that it landed on the terrace of the adjacent high-rise building.

5. Subject complement

That was a monster shot.

He is the man behind these whacky ideas.

Our neighbor is an incorrigible nuisance who has received few warnings even from the police.

6. Object complement

The council elected him the first president of newly constituted task force.

The CEO made him the sole point of contact for handling customer complaints.

We consider you a trusted ally.

7. Appositive

John Kennedy, the popular US president, was known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches.

Siberian tiger, the largest cat in the world, can survive in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

Thomas Edison, the inventor of light bulb, failed several times in his experiments before finally succeeding.

How noun phrases help your writing?

1. They can pack in complex information concisely

A noun phrase can pack in more information than just a one-word noun, helping you express more complex idea in the same sentence and adding variety to your writing. Example:

The receptionist presented the person who entered the lobby with posse of security guards a bouquet. [Noun phrase]

If you’ve to write the same sentence without a noun phrase, the result will be two similar-looking sentences, which makes the writing boring.

The receptionist presented the person a bouquet. He entered the lobby with posse of security guards. [Noun]

2. They’ll help you avoid punctuation mistakes

If you understand that the entire phrase works as a unit like a one-word noun does, you’ll avoid putting in unnecessary commas within a phrase just to take a pause, especially in long ones. Such commas can throw your readers off guard. Example:

The matter of investing millions of dollars in space program while many live below poverty line, arises every time the country launches a satellite.

It’s a long noun phrase, working as a single unit, but it doesn’t require a comma after line.

3. They’ll help you avoid subject-verb agreement issues

Understanding of noun phrases will help you avoid subject-verb agreement issues in sentences. When noun phrase functions as the subject of a sentence, the verb must agree with the head noun. Example:

One of the shirts has stains on it. [The verb agrees with the head noun one and not with shirts. Hence, it takes singular form.]

Two of the shirts are ironed. [The verb agrees with the head noun two. Hence, it takes plural form.]

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a noun phrase contain verb?

Yes. Example:

The boy who sits next to me got 80 percent marks in math.

The relative clause acting as post-modifier contains finite verb sits. Note that the post-modifier in the following example doesn’t contain a finite verb (wearing is a non-finite verb).

The boy wearing white shirt will captain the team in tomorrow’s match.

What’s the difference between a noun phrase and a noun clause?

Both function as noun in sentences, but one is a phrase and the other is a clause. Examples:

Your performance in today’s match bettered our expectations. [Noun phrase]

How you performed in today’s match bettered our expectations. [Noun clause]

In the above sentences, both are functioning as subject of the sentence, but only the second (How you performed in today’s match) contains a subject-verb unit, which makes it a clause.

What’s the difference between a noun phrase and an adjective phrase?

Both are phrases, but they function differently in a sentence: Whereas a noun phrase functions as a noun, an adjective phrase functions as an adjective, implying it modifies nouns and pronouns. Examples:

Your performance in today’s match bettered our expectations. [Noun phrase as subject of the sentence]

You were unbelievably good in the match today. [Adjective phrase modifying the pronoun You predicatively]

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