Noun phrase

Noun phrase

In grammatical theory, a noun phrase (abbreviated NP) is a phrase whose head is a noun or a pronoun, optionally accompanied by a set of modifiers.


Noun phrases normally consist of a head noun, which is optionally modified ("premodified" If the modifier is placed before the noun; "postmodified" if the modifier is placed after the noun). Possible modifiers include:

  • determiners: articles (the, a), demonstratives (this, that), numerals (two, five, etc.), possessives (my, their, etc.), and quantifiers (some, many, etc.). In English, determiners are usually placed before the noun;
  • adjectives (the red ball); or
  • complements, in the form of a prepositional phrase (such as: the student of physics), or a That-clause (the claim that the earth is round);
  • modifiers; premodifiers if placed before the noun and usually either as nouns (the university student) or adjectives (the beautiful lady), or postmodifiers if placed after the noun. A postmodifier may be either a prepositional phrase (the man with long hair) or a relative clause (the house where I live). The difference between modifiers and complements is that complements complete the meaning of the noun; complements are necessary, whereas modifiers are optional because they just give additional information about the noun.

That noun phrases can be headed by elements other than nouns — for instance, pronouns (They came) or determiners ((I'll take these)) — has given rise to the postulation of a Determiner phrase instead of a noun phrase. The English language is not as permissive as some other languages, with regard to possible heads of noun phrases. German, for instance, allows adjectives as heads of noun phrases, as in Gib mir die alten: Give me the olds (= old ones).

Noun phrases can make use of an apposition structure. This means that the elements in the noun phrase are not in a head-modifier relationship, but in a relation of equality. An example of this is I, Caesar, declare ..., where "Caesar" and "I" do not modify each other.

The noun phrase as a grammatical unit

In English, for some purposes, noun phrases can be treated as single grammatical units. This is most noticeable in the syntax of the English genitive case. In a phrase such as The king of Sparta's wife, the possessive clitic "-'s" is not added to the king who actually has the wife, but instead to Sparta, as the end of the whole phrase. The clitic modifies the entire phrase the king of Sparta.

Grammatical function

Noun phrases are prototypically used for acts of reference as in "The blonde girl shouts" or "She kissed the man". Also possible, but found less often, is the use of noun phrases for predication, as in "Suzy is a blonde girl". Note that in English the use of the copula is indicates the use of a noun phrase as predicate, but other languages may not require the use of the copula. Finally, noun phrases are used for identifications like "The murderer was the butler", where no ascription is talking place. The possibility for a noun phrase to play the role of subject and predicate leads to the constructions of syllogisms.

Cross-linguistic observations

Noun phrases are very common cross-linguistically, but some languages like Tuscarora and Cayuga have been argued to lack this category.

See also


  • Giorgi, A. - Longobardi, G. (1991) The syntax of noun phrases, Cambridge University Press, England.
  • Moro, A. (1997) The raising of predicates. Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure, Cambridge University Press, England.


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