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The noun phrase

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For too long now the verb phrase has been the dominant focus of attention in course books, syllabuses, and teacher training programmes.

Paul Bress

Any teacher worth his/her salt will be able to tell you everything there is to know about base verbs, infinitives, progressives, perfectives, passives, and modals.

But, please, let's not forget the noun phrase! Why? Because the noun phrase is a quintessential part of every sentence (even if it doesn't appear in the surface structure of a sentence as in "stop!"), it is potentially infinite in length, and it can include any number of other phrases (e.g. noun, adjective, adverb) within its structure.

  • What is a noun phrase?
  • The structure of noun phrases
  • Noun phrases in class
  • Conclusion

What is a noun phrase?
Before we go any further, let's remind ourselves of what a noun phrase is. My definition is:

A noun phrase is either a pronoun or any group of words that can be replaced by a pronoun. For example, 'they', 'cars', and 'the cars' are noun phrases, but 'car' is just a noun, as you can see in these sentences (in which the noun phrases are all in bold)

Q: Do you like cars?
A: Yes, I like them.
Q: Do you like the cars over there?
A: Yes, they are nice.
Q: Do you like the car I bought last week?
A: Yes, I like it. (Note: 'It' refers to 'the car', not 'car')

If you are a little puzzled at this point, try and think of some further examples of noun phrases using the definition above, and compare your examples with simple nouns.

The structure of noun phrases
As I said, noun phrases can be infinite in length, but they would sound absurd if they got too long. So let's take the following noun phrase as our working model:

  • "The very tall education consultant with the roving eye"

    The structure of this noun phrase contains three sections:
  • Pre-modification
    • The =determiner
    • very =adverb (intensifying)
    • tall = adjective
    • education = pre-modifying noun
  • Head noun
    • consultant
  • Post-modification
    • with the roving eye = preposition phrase

Of course, each and every part of the noun phrase can be changed, but here is a summary of some fundamental changes in which it could changed:

  • A relative clause could replace the preposition phrase. 'The man with the hat' becomes 'The man who is wearing the hat'.
  • There could be a string of adjectives (and pre-modifying nouns) instead of just one. Both of these systems have their own structural rules. 'The big brown wooden box.' Or 'The world cup football competition.'
  • A numeral or cardinal could be inserted after the determiner. 'Do you remember the time I bumped into you in the park?' can become 'Do you remember the first time I bumped into you in the park?'
  • There can be 'embedding' (e.g. 'the roving eye' is also a noun phrase and can be made more complex in the same way as 'the…consultant'!) 'The roving eye which he had cultivated for so many years'.
  • Any part of the noun phrase can simply be stripped away (apart from the word 'The' here, as 'consultant' is not a noun phrase in itself). So 'The very tall education consultant with the roving eye' can become 'The tall education consultant with the roving eye' (here 'very' has been deleted).

To sum up, noun phrases are very simple ideas in themselves, but they can be extremely complex in how they manifest themselves in actual language.

Noun phrases in class
But how can a teacher help students use noun phrases in a more accurate way? And how can a teacher help students to use them in a way that is more appropriate to the register of the target discourse? I have four suggestions to make, all of which I constantly use with my students:

  • I encourage students to understand what a noun phrase is.
    To reinforce this understanding, I ask my students to study texts and answer such questions as "What pronoun could this noun phrase be replaced by?" and "What noun phrase does this pronoun refer to?"
  • I provide interesting prompts to encourage students to use noun phrases.
    For example, I sometimes show my students a picture of a boy with brown eyes, and then I show exactly the same boy, but this time with big brown eyes. This keeps students on their toes and gets them to practise the grammar in an entertaining way. If you have no pictures, you can use visual information about the students in your class as verbal prompts! You might expect your students to say: "The boy with the big brown eyes is looking out of the window."
  • I sometimes write a long noun phrase down on a piece of paper.
    I then cut up the sentence into the different words of the noun phrase. I then give each word to different individual students. The students with a bit of paper then stand up and have to rearrange themselves so that the noun phrase makes sense. I tell them where the front of the noun phrase should be - and the end. I also tell the students only to show their word to one student at a time. This makes the activity more demanding and more fun. One example is: "The / very / tall / blonde / girl / who / has got / a small pink case"
  • I encourage students to write noun phrases which are appropriate to the register they're aiming for.
    For example, for an ESP class who need to give papers / presentations, I use a lot of authentic and contrastive reading input so that the students can formulate appropriate language. If you're teaching a general English class, you can use input that focuses on formal, neutral, and informal register, such as 'Thanks for your email' (neutral), 'Ta' (informal, where the noun phrase can be elided), and 'We thank you for your correspondence' (formal, where there is a full sentence and the lexical item is more abstract).

In conclusion, noun phrases and verb phrases are equally important. So noun phrases really shouldn't be ignored by coursebook / syllabus writers or teachers. All these people can help students understand how noun phrases fit into the syntax of a sentence, produce more complex noun phrases (as they become more advanced), and become aware of how noun phrases operate differently in different registers.

Further reading
Giorgi and Longobardi The Syntax of Noun Phrases, Cambridge University Press
Miller and Weinert Spontaneous Spoken Discourse, Oxford University Press