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The Internal Structure of Noun Phrases in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

The following article identifies the seven grammatical forms—determiners, adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, verb phrases, adjective clauses, noun clauses, and noun phrases—that function within noun phrases in English and includes examples of English noun phrases.

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    Noun Phrases

    Noun phrases are defined as phrases in which a noun functions as the head of the phrase. In the English language, seven grammatical forms can appear within a noun phrase:

    1. Determiners
    2. Adjective phrases
    3. Prepositional phrases
    4. Verb phrases
    5. Adjective clauses
    6. Noun clauses
    7. Noun phrases

    The following sections define the seven grammatical forms that can appear within noun phrases in English as well as provides examples to illustrate use.

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    Determiners

    The first grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the determiner. Determiners express information about nouns and pronouns such as definiteness and quantity that cannot be expressed by an adjective. The six types of determiners in English are articles (definite and indefinite), possessive determiners, demonstrative determiners, interrogative determiners, numerals, and quantifiers. Determiners perform the grammatical function of determinative within noun phrases. For example:

    • Determiner | Noun
    • the | lamp

    • Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Noun
    • your | green | hat

    • Determiner | Determiner | Noun
    • many of | the | students

    Determiners precede all other grammatical forms including the main noun, modifiers, and complements within the noun phrase.

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    Adjective Phrases

    The second grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the adjective phrase. Adjectives are traditionally defined as "words that describe nouns" and perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier within noun phrases. For example:

    • Adjective Phrase | Noun
    • purple | bananas

    • Pronoun | Adjective Phrase
    • somebody | knowledgeable

    • Adjective Phrase | Noun | Adjective Phrase
    • new | president | elect

    Adjective phrases modify nouns attributively or postpositionally. Attributive adjectives appear before the noun as in blue in blue moon. Postpositional adjectives appear after the noun as in general in attorney general. Although most adjectives can modify nouns from within the noun phrase, some adjectives can only function predicatively, which is explained in more detail in Adjectives in English that Function Only Predicatively.

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    Prepositional Phrases

    The third grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are traditionally defined as "words that indicate relationships between nouns, adjectives, and verbs and other nouns, adjectives, and verbs." Prepositional phrases are defined as phrases formed by a preposition followed by a prepositional complement. Within the noun phrase, prepositional phrases perform the grammatical functions of noun phrase modifier and noun phrase complement. A noun phrase modifier is defined as a word, phrase, or clause that describes a noun or noun phrase. For example:

    • Noun | Prepositional Phrase
    • store | in the mall

    • Noun | Prepositional Phrase
    • boy | with the puppy

    A noun phrase complement is defined as a word, phrase, or clause that completes the meaning of a noun or noun phrase. For example:

    • Noun | Prepositional Phrase
    • passion | for animal rights

    • Noun | Prepositional Phrase
    • author | of the book

    Prepositional phrases always follow the noun within a noun phrase.

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    Verb Phrases

    The fourth grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the verb phrase. Verbs are traditionally defined as "words that express an action or state" and perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier within noun phrases. Only verbs in the form of infinitives, present participles, and past participles can modify nouns. For example:

    • Noun | Verb Phrase
    • clothing | to sell

    • Noun | Verb Phrase
    • woman | wearing the purple hat

    • Verb Phrase | Noun
    • crying | child

    • Noun | Verb Phrase
    • meat | cooked on a grill

    Present participles may modify nouns attributively or postpositionally depending on the specific verb. Infinitives and past participles always follow the noun within a noun phrase.

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    Adjective Clauses

    The fifth grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the adjective clause. An adjective clause, or a relative clause, is defined as a subordinate clause that consists of a subordinating conjunction in the form of a relative pronoun followed by a clause. Adjective clauses function as noun phrase modifiers within noun phrases. For example:

    • Noun | Adjective Clause
    • book | that cites the quotation
    • girl | my brother likes
    • town | where you were born

    Adjective clauses always follow the noun within a noun phrase.

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    Noun Clauses

    The sixth grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is the noun clause. A noun clause is refined as a dependent clause that performs nominal functions and that consists of a subordinating conjunction followed by a clause. Noun clauses function as noun phrase complements within noun phrases. For example:

    • Noun | Noun Clause
    • belief | that the world was flat
    • fact | that you borrowed my sweat without asking
    • hope | that no child will go hungry

    Noun clauses also always follow the noun within a noun phrase.

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    Noun Phrases

    The seventh grammatical form that can appear in a noun phrase in English is another noun phrase. Noun phrases that describe other nouns perform the grammatical function of noun phrase modifier. For example:

    • Noun Phrase | Noun
    • hotel | room
    • dog | bowl
    • table | leg

    Noun phrases immediately precede the main noun within a noun phrase.

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    Combining Grammatical Forms

    The seven grammatical forms that can appear within noun phrases can also appear in combination with other grammatical forms within a single noun phrase. For example, the follow fifteen constructions are some of the possible combinations of grammatical forms within noun phrases in English:

    • Determiner-Noun
    • Adjective Phrase-Noun
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Noun
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Adjective Phrase-Noun
    • Determiner-Noun Phrase-Noun
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Noun Phrase-Noun
    • Determiner-Noun-Prepositional Phrase
    • Determiner-Noun-Verb Phrase
    • Determiner-Noun-Prepositional Phrase-Verb Phrase
    • Determiner-Noun-Noun Clause
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Noun Phrase-Noun-Prepositional Phrase
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Noun Phrase-Noun-Verb Phrase
    • Determiner-Adjective Phrase-Noun Phrase-Noun-Prepositional Phrase-Verb Phrase
    • Noun-Noun Clause
    • Determiner-Noun-Prepositional Phrase-Adjective Clause

    For example:

    • Determiner | Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Noun Phrase | Noun | Prepositional Phrase
    • some of | your | delicious | pumpkin | pies | on the table

    • Determiner | Adjective Phrase | Adjective Phrase | Noun | Verb Phrase
    • the | bland, | tasteless | soup | delivered by room service

    • Determiner | Noun| Prepositional Phrase | Verb Phrase | Adjective Clause
    • The | woman | on the porch | wearing the scarf | who broke her leg

    Note that more than just the fifteen constructions of the noun phrase listed above are possible in the English language.

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    Printable Download

    For a printable reference study sheet of the grammatical forms that can appear in noun phrases in English, please download the supplement to this article The Internal Structure of Noun Phrases in English Reference Sheet.

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