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Introduction to Noun Phrases

How understanding noun phrases and noun phrase modification helps with reading and writing

What are noun phrases?

At its simplest a noun phrase is just a noun or a pronoun See the glossary definition . (Ice-creamNoun is delicious. ShePronoun smiled).

But most noun phrases are complex because the head See the glossary definition noun is modified in some way by premodifiers (deliciousadjective premodifier ice-cream) or postmodifiers ( the ice-cream I ate last nightrelative clause postmodifier).

One of the many problems students of English encounter is the complexity of many English sentences, especially in academic writing. But an understanding of some of the major components of English sentences can help students to read faster and to write better. Possibly the most important of these is in fact the complex noun phrase.

Consider the following sentence and its reduction (tap to stop or restart the animation):

The core of this sentence is quite simple:

The Nobel prize has been awarded to Svante Pääbo.

We have arrived at this core sentence by eliminating the noun modifiers. In fact, strictly speaking not quite because "prize" is the headword of the first noun phrase, modified by the noun "Nobel". So the two headwords in this sentence are "prize" and the proper noun "Svante Pääbo". You can see a full analysis of this on the noun phrases example page.

Not all sentences can be reduced in this way simply by eliminating noun modifiers. For example, in the sentence "Humans are drawn to foods that are fatty and sweet and rich and complex", "foods" is modified by the relative clause "that are fatty and sweet and rich and complex". But without this clause the sentence makes little sense. The defining relative clause is a key element of the sentence. Nevertheless, an awareness of complex noun phrases and modifiers helps with comprehension especially in long sentences common in academic writing. And students who need to write for academic purposes need to master these structures.

So a noun phrase is simply a noun with extra information which changes (modifies) the meaning in some way. This is done by adding something before the noun (premodification) of after the noun (postmodification).

Premodifiers are mainly adjectives, participle See the glossary definition modifiers or nouns.

  • Adjective: sugaryadjective drinksnoun headword
  • Participle: caffeinateded-participle drinksnoun headword
  • Noun: coffeenoun modifier drinksnoun headword

See more examples of noun premodification here.

Postmodifiers include prepositional phrases, relative clauses, to-clauses, ed-clauses, ing-clauses, and a few others.

  • Prepositional phrase: a lackheadword of sunlightprepositional phrase
  • Relative clause: the chemicalheadword that helps us to sleep wellrelative clause
  • To-clause: an opportunityheadword to go outside at the end of the dayto-clause
  • Ed-clause: researchheadword published in Natureed-clause
  • Ing-clause: rocksheadword containing olivineing-clause

The following pages will outline the main types of noun modification and will provide examples and analysis from authentic texts.

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