Structure of English Noun phrases

by Nguyen Thi Van Lam, TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar), May 2004

Noun phrases play an important role in the construction of a sentence. Without knowledge of noun phrases in English, learners could not produce comprehensible sentences. This article, therefore, aims to discuss the structure of noun phrases, both basic and complex. Basic noun phrases can be pronouns, numerals or head nouns with different determiners while complex ones include pre-modification, head noun and post-modification.


Basic Noun Phrases
  Pronouns and Numerals
  Basic Noun Phrases with Determiners
Complex Noun Phrases
  Head Noun

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1 Introduction

Among the five different types of phrases in English namely noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases and prepositional phrases, noun phrases are the most common playing various syntactic functions in the sentence and clause structure: subject, object and complement (of various kinds), apposition and attribute. They are used to refer to things that people want to talk about: people, objects, concepts, processes and all kind of entities. However, the problem arises here: “How can we construct noun phrases, both basic and complex ones?” This article is to deal with the structure of basic and complex noun phrases.


2. Basic Noun Phrases

Structurally speaking, in the first place, basic noun phrases consist of pronouns, numerals or nouns with articles (indefinite, definite or zero) or nouns with other closed-system items that occur before the noun head including pre-determiners (pre-det), determiners (det.) and post-determiners (post-det.). The underlined parts of the following sentences are good examples of basic noun phrases:

  I stayed at home during all the last few days  
  pronoun   zero article + noun   pre-de + det + post-det + noun  

  Some people dislike ‘13’            
  det. + noun   numeral            


2.1 Pronouns and Numerals

Actually, pronouns are a special class of noun. As their names imply, they ‘replace’ nouns or rather whole noun phrases, since they cannot generally occur with determiners. For example, personal pronouns have two sets of case forms: subjective and objective: ‘I’/ ‘me’, ‘we’/ ‘us’, ‘he’/ ‘him’, ‘she’/ ‘her’, ‘they’/ ‘them’; ‘you’ and ‘it’ are exceptional in showing no distinction. Subjective personal pronouns function as subject and sometimes as subject complement while objective personal pronouns as object, prepositional complement and sometimes as subject complement. These can be illustrated by:

He is happy.

I  saw him at the station.

Like personal pronouns, other types of pronouns including reflexive, possessive, relative, demonstrative, interrogative, universal, assertive, non-assertive and negative pronouns are all basic noun phrases.

Reflexive pronouns include ‘myself’, ‘yourself’, ‘himself’, ‘herself’, ‘itself’, ‘ourselves’, ‘yourselves’ and ‘themselves’.

He hurt himself yesterday.

Possessive pronouns are ‘mine’, ‘ours’, ‘yours’, etc.

This book is mine

Relative pronouns: ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘that’, ‘which’, etc.

The book, which is on the table, is mine.

Demonstrative pronouns fall in two groups. One is “near” reference with ‘this’ and ‘these’; and the other “distant” reference with ‘that’ and ‘those’.

This is my friend.

Interrogative pronouns: ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘what’, etc.

Who did you go with?

Universal pronouns: ‘each’, ‘all’, and ‘every’ series: ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, etc.

Everyone has his own ambitions.

Partitive pronouns, parallel to the universal ones, consist of assertive pronouns including the ‘some’ group (‘some’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, etc.); non-assertive with the ‘any’ series (‘any’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, etc.); and negative with the ‘no’ series (‘none’, ‘no-one’, ‘nothing’, etc.)

Nobody has come yet.

Apart from pronouns, numerals including cardinal numbers (‘one’, ‘two’, etc.) and ordinal numbers (‘first’, ‘second’, etc.) can form basic noun phrases, as in:

Two is better than one.


2.2 Basic Noun Phrases with Determiners

Not only can basic noun phrases consist of pronouns or numerals, but they can also comprise a head noun with determiners or determiners modified by pre-determiners and/or post-determiners. The head noun of a noun phrase is the central element and decisive factor in performing the syntactic functions of the whole noun phrase. It can be singular count noun such as ‘book’, plural noun ‘books’ or mass noun like ‘ink’.

Determiners can be indefinite article ‘a’ and ‘an’; definite article ‘the’; or zero article as in the noun phrase ‘books’. The use of articles is not the only possibility for determining nouns, but we can use such words as ‘no’, ‘what’, ‘this’, ‘some’, ‘every’, ‘each’ and ‘either’ before the head noun like ‘book’. These words, also called determiners, forming a set of closed-system, are mutually exclusive with each other, i.e. there cannot be more than one occurring before the head. Both ‘a the book’ and ‘a some book’ are ungrammatical. Determiners are in a “choice relation”, that is they occur one instead of another. In this respect, they are unlike ‘all’, ‘many’, ‘nice’, which are in a “chain relation”, occurring one after another as in:

All the many nice pictures are collected.

The articles are central to the class of determiners in that they have no function independent of the noun they precede. Other determiners like ‘some’ are also independent pronouns:

A: I want the money.

B: Here is the.  (ungrammatical)
B: Here is some. (grammatical)

With regard to the co-occurrence of determiners with the noun classes singular count (‘book’), plural count (‘books’), and mass noun (‘ink’), there are six classes of determiners:


The Possessive (‘my’, ‘your’, 'his’, etc.)
Genitive (‘my father’s’, ‘Anne’s’, etc.)
Which (ever)
What (ever)
Some (stressed)
Any (stressed)






Zero article
Some (unstressed)
Any (unstressed)














A (n)







In addition to the determiners mentioned before, there are a large number of other closed-system items that occur before the head of noun phrases. These items, referred to as closed-system pre-modified, form three classes (pre-determiners, ordinals and quantifiers) which have been set up on the basis of the positions that they can have in relation to determiners and to each other.

The first class of the closed-system pre-modifiers, pre-determiners, is unique in occurring before the determiners. They are: (1) ‘all’, ‘both’ and ‘half’; (2) the multipliers ‘double’, ‘twice’, ‘three times’, etc. and fractions ‘one-third’, ‘two-fifths’, etc. and (3) ‘such’ and ‘what’ (exclamative). Like determiners, pre-determiners are mutually exclusive. Therefore, ‘all’, ‘both’ and ‘half’ have restriction on their co-occurrence with determiners and head nouns. The illustrations are as follows:

• All



The, my, etc.


singular count noun



The, my, etc.
These, those
Zero article


plural noun



The, my, etc.
This, that
Zero article


mass noun

All my life

All the books

All this paper

• Both



The, my, etc.
These, those
Zero article 


plural noun

Both these books

• Half



The, my, etc.
A, this, that


singular count noun



The, my, etc.
These, those


plural noun



The, my, etc.
This, that


mass noun

Half an hour

These pre-determiners can occur only before articles or demonstratives, but none of them can occur with such quantitative determiners as ‘every’, ‘either’, ‘each’, ‘some’, ‘any’, ‘no’ and ‘enough’. However, ‘all’, ‘both’ and ‘half’ have ‘of’-construction which are optional with nouns and obligatory with personal pronouns:

All (of) the students  = All of them

All (of) my time  = All of it

With a quantifier following, the ‘of’-construction is preferred

All of the ten students

All of the many girls

‘All’, ‘both’ and ‘half’ can be basic noun phrases:

All/Both/ Half were allowed to go out.

Apart from ‘all’, ‘both’ and ‘half’, the multipliers such as ‘double’, ‘twice’, ‘three times’, etc. can occur before determiners to denote a number, an amount, etc.:

Double their papers

Twice his strength

Three times this amount

 ‘Once’, ‘twice’, etc. can occur with determiners ‘a’, ‘every’, ‘each’, and ‘per’ (less commonly) to form “distributive” expressions with a temporal noun as head:



Three times






Preceding the determiners can also be the fractions ‘one-third’, ‘two-fourths’, etc. which can have the alternative ‘of’-construction, e.g.:

One-third the time

One-third of the time

‘Such’ and exclamation ‘what’ can occur only with indefinite articles and zero one, e.g.:

What/Such a nuisance.

What/Such fine singing.

The second class of closed-system pre-modifiers is ordinals which include the ordinal numbers (‘first’, ‘second’, etc.) as well as ‘(an) other’, ‘next’, and ‘last’. These words are post-determiners, that is they must follow determiners in the noun phrase structure, but they precede quantifiers and adjectives as modifier.

  The first (cold) months  
  determiner post-determiner (ordinal) modifier noun  

Cardinal numbers and quantifiers belong to the third class of closed-system pre-modifiers. They are mutually exclusive, following determiners but preceding adjectives as modifier. Cardinal numbers are ‘one’ (with singular count nouns) and ‘two’, ‘three’, etc. (with plural nouns), e.g.:

One good reason

All (of) the three brothers

Closed-system quantifiers are ‘many’ (with the comparatives ‘more’ and ‘most’), ‘few’ (‘fewer’, ‘fewest’),  ‘little’ (‘less’, ‘least’) and ‘several’ as in:

Several interesting books

All her many good ideas

A basic noun phrase may contain various determiners, more concretely, pre-determiners, determiners and post-determiners which are in a fixed order:

pre-determiners determiners post-determiner Head noun

















As mentioned above, basic noun phrases consist of only one component such as pronouns, numerals or of two components including determiners and the head nouns.


3 Complex Noun Phrases

Complex noun phrases contain three components: pre-modification, head noun and post-modification. We are to deal with these components in turn.


3.1 Head Noun

Like in the basic noun phrase, the head noun, first of all, is the central element and core component of the complex noun phrase. It may be count or mass noun which dictates concord and (for the most part) other kinds of congruence with the rest of the sentence outside the noun phrase. This is exemplified in:

The only girl in this class is hardworking.

All of the beautiful girls in my class are kind.

Also, when the genitive is as pre-modification, the head nouns can be omitted:

We met at the dentist’s last week.


3.2 Pre-modification

The second component of a complex noun phrase is pre-modification, also called pre-modifiers, including modifiers that stand before the head noun. Pre-modifiers can be closed-system and/or open-class items. Closed-system pre-modifiers are discussed in the structure of the basic noun phrases above. These items are optional in the complex noun phrases. Meanwhile, open-class pre-modifiers come after the closed-system ones and precede the head noun as in:


All these

young beautiful




adjective as pre-modifier



Pre-modifying adjectives can be those denoting general description (‘beautiful’, intelligent’, ‘good’, etc.); age (‘young’, ‘old’, etc.); size (‘big’, ‘small’, etc.); shape (‘square’, ‘round’, etc.); colour (‘red’, ‘blue’, etc.); material (‘silk’, ‘metal’, etc.); resemblance to a material (‘silken’ in silken hair, ‘cat-like’, etc.); and provenance or style (‘British’, ‘Parisian’, etc.). These adjectives can be both attribute and complement.

In addition, pre-modifying adjectives can be intensifying ones which have a heightening effect on the noun they modify or the reverse, a lowering effect, e.g.: ‘real’ (a real hero), ‘definite’ (a definite loss), ‘complete’ (a complete fool) and ‘close’ (a close friend). These adjectives are generally attributive only.

Restrictive adjectives, another class of pre-modifying adjectives, restrict the reference of the noun exclusively, particularly or chiefly, e.g.: ‘certain’ (a certain person), ‘exact’ (the exact answer), ‘only’ (the only occasion) and ‘very’ (the very man). Like intensifying adjectives, the restrictive ones are attributive only.

However, there are a number of adjectives which cannot pre-modify the head, but can be predicative such as: ‘faint’, ‘ill’, ‘well’, ‘able’, ‘afraid’, etc. Not only are the head nouns pre-modified but pre-modifying adjectives can also be, especially when they are the first items after the determiner. In this case, it can be pre-modified in the same way as it can be in the predicative position. This is illustrated by:

  His really quite unbelievably happy family  

With indefinite determiners, some intensifiers such as ‘so’ are differently used. ‘So’ is replaced by ‘such’, which precedes the determiner or else ‘so’ plus adjective would be placed before the determiner, e.g.:

Such a beautiful girl

So beautiful a girl

Apart from pre-modifying adjectives, the head nouns of the complex noun phrases can be pre-modified by particles, either present or past, e.g.: an approaching man (present participle), the badly injured dog (past participle), etc.

The head noun can also be pre-modified by genitives, e.g. these qualified doctors’ salaries,these doctors’ high salaries, etc.; group genitives as in the teacher of English’s salary, an hour and a half’s discussion, etc.; or other nouns as in the city council, a love story, etc.

Another class of pre-modifiers is the type of denomical adjective often meaning “consisting of”, “involving”, or “relating to”. These items must come next before the head and can be preceded by a wide range of pre-modifying items, e.g.:  the pleasant social life, a city political problem, etc.

Finally there are various classes of pre-modification, both closed-system and open-class. Therefore, when the complex noun phrases consist of different classes of pre-modifiers, they may be placed in a relevant order. The acceptable order of pre-modifiers in a complex noun phrase is as follows:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
    3' 3"                    





















































































1. pre-determiner, 2. determiner, 3. post-determiner, 3'. Ordinal, 3". Cardinal/quantifier
4. general, 5. age, 6. size/shape, 7. colour, 8. participle, 9. provenance, 10. material
11. purpose, 12. denominal, 13. head noun


3.3 Post-modification

The third important component of a complex noun phrase is post-modification, called post-modifiers, comprising all the items placed after the head. These post-modifiers are mainly realized by prepositional phrases, finite clauses (or relative clauses), nonfinite clauses, adjective phrases, noun phrases or adverbial phrases:

  determiner head post-modifiers  
(1) a book with yellow covers (prepositional phrase)  
(2) the man who told you the secret (finite clause)  
(3) the girl speaking English fluently (nonfinite clause)  
(4) a shelf full of books (adjective phrase)  
(5) the opera "Carmen" (noun phrase)  
(6) the road back (adverbial phrase)  

In the example (1) ‘with yellow covers’ is a prepositional phrase post-modifying the head ‘book’. Apart from ‘with’, there is a wide range of prepositions that can be used, e.g.:  the road to London, the house beyond the church, a child of  five, etc., including the complex prepositions, e.g. a house on the top of the hill, action in case of emergency, etc. and those having participle forms as in problems concerning the environment. The commonest preposition in the noun phrase post-modification ‘of’ has a close correspondence to ‘have’ sentences:

The ship has a funnel. ----- the funnel of the ship

The table has four legs. ----- the four legs of the table

However, some are relatable to ‘be’ sentences:

London is a city. ----- the city of London

The news was the team’s victory ------ the news of the team’s victory

Also, the ‘of’ phrase can be used to express the subject or object relation:

The bus arrived ----- the arrival of the bus

Someone imprisoned the murderer ----- the imprisonment of the murderer

In the example (2), the post-modifier is a relative or finite clause which can be restrictive or non-restrictive. There are a number of relative clauses beginning with relative pronouns: ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘whose’, ‘that’ (personal); ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘what’ (non-personal); ‘when’, a preposition plus ‘which’ (time); ‘where’, a preposition plus ‘which’ (place); and ‘why’, ‘for which’ (reason). While restrictive relative clauses help to define the head noun, the non-restrictive ones give additional information to it, as exemplified in:

  The woman who is standing outside is my neighbour.  

  That is my neighbour, who is standing outside.    

The example (3) illustrates the post-modifier as a non-finite clause, present participle clause. The non-finite can be past participle clauses.

  The only car serviced in the garage is mine.  
    past participle clause    

In addition, post-modifiers can be to-infinitive clauses:

  The next flight to arrive was from London.  
  The place to stay for summer holidays should be pleasant.  

As is seen in the example (4), adjective phrases can be post-modifiers of the head noun in the complex noun phrases. The adjective phrases can usually be regarded as a reduced relative clause. Complex indefinite pronouns ending in –body, -one, -thing, and –where can be modified only post-positively, e.g.:

Anyone (who is) intelligent can do it.

The men (who were) present were his supporters.

In the example (5), the phrase explicitly encodes the information that “Carmen is an opera”. For this reason, ‘ Carmen’ is traditionally said to be in apposition to ‘the opera’. Another minor type of post-modification illustrated in the example (6) is adverbial modification. Similarly, in the following examples, the adverbial phrases post-modify the head noun: the way ahead, the direction back, the hall downstairs, etc. Unlike pre-modifiers, their no grammatical limit to the number of post-modifiers occurring in a noun phrase, considerations of style and comprehensibility will normally keep them to one or two. Where we have more than one, the relative order tends to depend on the related properties of length and class, with shorter modifiers preceding longer ones, prepositional phrases preceding clauses:

  A man from Britain who I was talking about last night  
    prepositional phrase relative clause  


4 Conclusion

In conclusion, noun phrases, either basic or complex are potentially very complicated. Most simply, basic noun phrases consist of just one overt element, pronouns of different types or numerals. Basic noun phrases, more complicatedly, comprise pre-determiners, determiners, post-determiners and the head nouns, the order of which is fixed. Complex noun phrases, as their names imply, are the most difficult of all. They consist of pre-modification, head noun and post-modification. Pre-modification includes closed-system and open-class items which are in the given order. Post-modification can be finite or non-finite clauses and adjective, noun, prepositional and adverbial phrases. Though noun phrases are complicatedly constructed, hopefully, by now enough has been presented to help learners of English find it easy in learning noun phrases in English, both basic and complex.



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• Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1972). A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman

• Swan, M. (1980). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

• Thomson, A.J., & Martinet, A.V. (1986). A Practical English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Nguyen Thi Van Lam is an English teacher (Giao vien Anh van), at Foreign Languages Department (Khoa Ngoai Ngu), Vinh University (Truong Dai Hoc Vinh), 182 Le Duan Road (Duong Le Duan), Vinh City (Thanh pho Vinh ),Nghe An Province (Tinh Nghe An), Vietnam

TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar),  is grateful to Madam Nguyen Thi Van Lam to have the opportunity to publish her article on its web-site.

Update: 2004-07-09 10:19 AM -0400
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