What are noun phrases? (with examples)
A noun phrase is a group of two or more words headed by a noun that includes modifiers (for example, ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘of them’, ‘with her’).
A noun phrase plays the role of a noun. In a noun phrase, modifiers can come before or after the noun.
Note: A noun phrase can also be headed by a pronoun. For example:
- the dog with fleas
- the one who has fleas
(This is a noun phrase headed by a pronoun.)
Examples of noun phrases
In normal writing, nouns almost always appear in noun phrases. It is rare to find a noun that works alone (ie without modifiers) in a sentence.
- Man proposes, but God disposes. (German Canon Thomas à Kempis)
(This example features two nouns without any modifiers. That’s weird. In other words, there are no noun phrases in this example.)
In real life, it is much more common for nouns to appear in noun phrases, that is, to be accompanied by modifiers. Here is a list of noun phrases. In this list, each noun phrase consists of a main noun (highlighted) and at least one modifier.
- People: the soldier , my cousin , the fool Alan , the lawyer with the big nose
- Animals: that anteater, a rat, a shark, Mickey fun
- Places: the corner house, inside London, dirty factory, no shelter
- Things: this table , our London Bridge , the sharp chisel , that nitrogen, the , an inch , your kitchen
- Ideas: total confusion , some kindness , your faith , the Theory of Relativity , a joy
So, a noun with any kind of modifier (even if it’s just“a“ o “the“) is a noun phrase.
The role of noun phrases
Like any noun, a noun phrase can function as a subject, object, or complement within a sentence. In each example below, the noun phrase is in bold and the head noun is underlined.
- Singing in the bathroom relaxes me.
(Here, the noun phrase is the subject of the verb“relax“.)
- I know the back streets.
(Here, the noun phrase is the direct object of the verb“saber“).
- She was the devil in disguise.
(Here, the noun phrase is a subject complement that follows the linking verb“era“).
As most nouns appear in noun phrases, let’s quickly look at the definition of“phrase“:
Definition of “Phrase“
A sentence has at least two words and functions as a part of speech.
It follows, therefore, that a noun phrase functions as a noun in a sentence. We can prove this because we know that a noun can be replaced by a pronoun (eg he, she, it, they). Looking at the examples above, we can replace each noun phrase with a pronoun.
- it relaxes me
- I know them
- she was he
Here are some real-life examples of noun phrases as subjects, objects, and objects:
- This man has a nice smile , but he has teeth iron . ( Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on Mikhail Gorbachev)
(“This man“is the subject of the verb“have“. The phrase“a nice smile“is the direct object of“have“. The noun phrase“iron teeth“is the direct object of the verb“got“. here is the“pronoun test“: it has one, but it does).
- I never learned from a man who agreed with me. (Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein)
(The noun phrase“a man who agreed with me“is the object of the preposition“of“. here is the“pronoun test“: never learned from him).
- Every man brave is a man of word . (French playwright Pierre Corneille)
(“every brave man“is the subject of the verb“es“. the noun phrase“a man of word“is a subject complement that follows the linking verb“es“. here is the“pronoun test“: He is one.)
It can get complicated. It is not unusual for nouns and noun phrases to be embedded within noun phrases. Looking at the last example,“courage“ y “word“they are nouns, but they are not the main nouns of the sentences. Both are objects of the preposition“of“, sitting on prepositional phrases that modify the main nouns.
More examples of noun phrases
Noun phrases are extremely common. Remember that a noun with any kind of modifier (including just a number or an article) is a noun phrase. Here are some more examples of noun phrases:
- The best defense against the atomic bomb is not to be there when it goes off. (Anonymous)
(In this example, there is a noun phrase within a noun phrase. The noun phrase“the atomic bomb“is the object of the preposition“contra“. The prepositional phrase“against the atomic bomb“modification“defending“. )
- I don’t have a bank account, because I don’t know my mother’s maiden name . (Paula Poundstone)
(In this example, both noun phrases are direct objects.)
- The best car security device is a rearview mirror with a policeman inside . (Dudley Moore, 1935-2002)
(In this example, the first noun phrase is the subject and the second is a subject complement.)
- Only two things are infinite, the universe and stupidityhuman , and I’m not sure about the first. (Albert Einstein, 1879-1955)
The last thing to say about noun phrases is that they can be headed by both pronouns and nouns, and they can be quite long.
- Anyone who wants the presidency so badly that they spend two years organizing and campaigning for it cannot be trusted with the job. (Journalist David Broder)
(Here,“any“it is a pronoun. The rest of the noun phrase is an adjective clause that modifies the head“noun“. here is the“pronoun test“: cannot be trusted with the position).
Why should I care about noun phrases?
Most native English speakers can form noun phrases without thinking about grammar. So, truth be told, understanding how they work isn’t particularly helpful unless you need to teach them or compare them to similar structures in a foreign language you’re learning.
However, having said that, there is a common problem associated with noun phrases.
When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, make sure the subject and verb agree with the main noun.
- The Spitfire’s 9-yard bullet belt gives us the term“the full nine yards“. ❌
(The main noun in this noun phrase is“belt“. All other words in the noun phrase are modifiers. What“belt“is singular, the verb“but“It is incorrect. Should be“and“).
- The Spitfire‘s 9-yard bullet belt gives us the term“the full nine yards“.✔️
Don’t be fooled into matching the verb with the closest noun (here,“vignettes“). When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, the main noun governs the verb.
When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, don’t let the modifiers divert your attention from the main noun, as it should govern the verb.