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The Functions of Nouns and Noun Phrases in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/10/2013

Nouns and noun phrases perform ten main grammatical functions in the English language. The following article lists the ten functions and provides examples to illustrate their use. Also included is a printable study sheet.

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    Nouns and Noun Phrases

    Nouns in English are traditionally described as naming "persons, places, things, and ideas." Pronouns are a subcategory of nouns. English Noun phrases are formed by a noun or pronoun and any modifiers, complements, or determiners including adjectives, determiners, prepositional phrases, noun clauses, and verb phrases.

    Nouns and noun phrases perform ten grammatical functions in the English language. The ten functions are:

    1. Subject
    2. Subject complement
    3. Direct object
    4. Object complement
    5. Indirect object
    6. Prepositional complement
    7. Noun phrase modifier
    8. Determinative
    9. Appositive
    10. Adverbial

    The following sections discuss the ten functions and include examples to illustrate use.

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    Subject

    Nouns and noun phrases first function as the subject of clauses. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause performs the action of or acts upon the verb. Clauses contain both a subject and a predicate. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of subjects:

    • The puppy has chewed on the bone.
    • Weeds are taking over the garden.
    • You and I hike in the park.

    Although other grammatical forms can function as the subject of clauses, nouns and noun phrases most frequently perform the function.

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    Subject Complement

    Nouns and noun phrases secondly function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular verb and describes the subject. Copular verbs are also called linking and state-of-being verbs and include verbs like be, become, and seem. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of subject complements:

    • The man was a nurse.
    • Our dog is a Shih Tzu.
    • Her mother will become the school librarian.
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    Direct Object

    Nouns and noun phrases can also function as direct objects. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question "who?" or "what?" receives the action of the verb. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of direct objects:

    • Herbivores eat plants.
    • The child finally swallowed the sour-tasting medication.
    • Your boyfriend just kissed the girl in the ostentatious hat.
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    Object Complement

    Similarly to subject complements, nouns and noun phrases can function as object complements. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows and describes the direct object. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of object complements:

    • The Provost named my supervisor the new Dean.
    • We elected you team leader.
    • Your cousins named their daughter Rainbow!
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    Indirect Object

    Nouns and noun phrases can also function as indirect objects. An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a ditransitive verb and answers the question "to or for whom?" or "to or for what" is the action of the verb performed. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of indirect objects:

    • Our groomer gave the dog a bath.
    • My professor loaned me a book.
    • The groom bought his new bride a wedding present.
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    Prepositional Complement

    Nouns and noun phrases function as prepositional complements. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows the preposition in a prepositional phrase. Prepositional complements are also called complements of prepositions and objects of prepositions. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of prepositional complements:

    • That little boy gave his toy to his baby brother.
    • The mother warned her children not to go into the woods.
    • During his vacation, the man decided to move to the Tropics.
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    Noun Phrase Modifier

    Although adjectives are traditionally defined as words that describe nouns, nouns and noun phrases can function as noun phrase modifiers. A noun phrase modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes another noun or noun phrase. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of noun phrase modifiers:

    • The bedroom walls are all oak panels.
    • Books are repaired in the Conservation Lab.
    • Mylar encapsulation is a technique for protecting brittle paper.
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    Determinatives

    Like other determiners, nouns and noun phrases can also function as determinatives. A determinative is a noun or noun phrase plus the possessive clitic (apostrophe s or s apostrophe) that indicates possession of or some other relationship to another noun or noun phrase. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of determinatives:

    • The cat is eating the dog's food.
    • My parents' house is in the same part of town as mine.
    • Why did your mother-in-law's cat run away?

    Nouns and noun phrases functioning as determinatives can simultaneously function as subject complements. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of bother determinatives and subject complements:

    • This bowl is the dog's.
    • The two parking lots north of town are the university's.
    • Those books by the door are the library's.
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    Appositive

    Nouns and noun phrases also function as appositives. An appositive is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies or explains another noun or noun phrase. The following italicized noun phrases are examples of appositives:

    • Eagle-Eye Cherry, the musician, is an individual, not a group.
    • Your aunt Lily is an eccentric lady.
    • John Smith, the colonial captain, founded Jamestown in 1607.
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    Adverbial

    Finally, nouns and noun phrases can function as adverbials. An adverbial is a word, phrase, or clause that describes an entire clause by providing information such as time, place, manner, condition, reason, or purpose. Adverbials answers such questions as "when?" "where?" "why?" and "how?" The following italicized noun phrases are examples of adverbials:

    • Today I need to go to bed early.
    • I get to sleep in late Sunday morning.
    • The puppy ran home.
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    Printable Download

    For a printable study sheet of the grammatical functions of nouns and noun phrases in English grammar, please download The Grammatical Functions of Nouns and Noun Phrases Reference Sheet.

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