7 Chapter 7. Noun Phrases

Adapted from Hagen, Karl. Navigating English Grammar. 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

We have already looked a bit at what nouns are and at some of their properties. Noun phrases can be extremely complex. In this chapter, we will explore some fundamentals of how noun phrases are structured. We won’t cover everything. In particular, we’ll leave certain issues of complex layering, where the NP contains many different elements, to a later chapter.

We will start by looking more closely at nouns themselves. In the previous chapter, we discovered that there are different types of verbs, and that those verb types influenced the structure of the verb phrase. With nouns as well, there are different subtypes, and those types play a role in the structure of the noun phrase.

Noun Subtypes

Nouns differ as to what other words can occur in the same noun phrase.

Consider, for example, how we can complete a frame sentence like “I saw ____.” with different NPs.[1]

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Fred *Netherland *cat trash stone
*the Fred *the Netherland the cat the trash the stone
*a Fred *a Netherland a cat *a trash a stone
*some Fred *some Netherland *some cat some trash some stone
*the Freds the Netherlands the cats *the trashes the stones
*Freds *Netherlands cats *trash stones

The elements of this table flagged with asterisks are ungrammatical as completions for the given frame.[2] In short, different nouns have different restrictions on what determiners they can take and on whether or not they can be made plural. This behavior is regular enough among groups of nouns that we can say that there are subtypes of nouns. We can explain the behavior of the nouns above by introducing two subdivisions: proper vs. common nouns, and count vs. non-count nouns.


[1] The frame sentence is deliberately brief to allow it to make sense with a wide variety of nouns, but because of this vagueness, some people don’t see why some of the items in column 5 are not flagged as ungrammatical. If you’re in that group, try expanding the frame sentence a bit to give yourself more context. For example, add (“in the courtyard”).

[2] Some here should be read as the unstressed determiner with the meaning “an unspecified quantity,” not the stressed word, which often means something like “a remarkable” (e.g., “She is some tennis player.”)

Proper vs. Common Nouns

The distinction between proper and common nouns is probably familiar to you from your earlier education. Fred and Netherlands are instances of proper nouns. A proper noun is a type of noun that refers to a specific person, place, or thing (Evelyn, Cairo, Saturday, etc.) Common nouns refer to classes of things (cat, trash, stone, etc.) rather than particular ones. All nouns that are not proper are common.

The behavior of proper nouns is illustrated in the first two columns of the table above. Most proper nouns behave like Fred in column 1. They do not allow a plural form (*Evelyns, *Cairos, etc.) and do not appear with determiners (*a Baltimore, *some Evelyn, etc.). Some proper nouns do appear in a plural form and with a determiner: the Netherlands in column 2, for example. But these proper nouns still behave differently from common nouns. There is no contrast in number; the Netherlands cannot be made singular (*the Netherland), and the determiner cannot be varied the way it can with ordinary common nouns:

(1) *I went to Netherlands.
(2) *I only had time to visit a Netherland.

There are also singular proper nouns that take an article, such as the Kremlin. Here too, there is no plural counterpart (*the Kremlins) and the article cannot be varied.

Expressions like Princeton University or the United States of America are frequently called proper nouns as well, but this a somewhat misleading simplification. Remember that noun is a category label for an individual word. Strictly, the proper nouns here are Princeton and America. University and states are common nouns, and united is an adjective. The complete expressions are proper names. A proper name contains a proper noun, and may contain other elements. If there is only a proper noun in the NP, it is still a proper name.[1]

In some situations, a proper noun can be converted to a common noun and can be plural or take a determiner:

(3) The Newtons of this world perceive connections that the rest of us have never even thought to look for.

Here, a proper name has been made to stand for a whole class, and hence behaves like other common nouns.

Proper names have a few structural peculiarities. We won’t go into them in detail in this course, but we will discuss the patterns that may cause problems for your analysis when we review NP structure at the end of the chapter.


[1] The proper noun does not need to be the head of the proper name. For example, in the United States of America, the head is states.

Count vs. Mass Nouns

Common nouns can be subdivided according to what determiners they permit. Nouns such as those in column (3) of the table above can be made plural with no determiner (as in cars), and they can take the indefinite article a/an (as in a car). Words that behave this way are typically regarded as referring to entities that are seen as individual, countable units, and hence they are known as count nouns. Count nouns can be either concrete items (computer, book, house, etc.) or abstract ideas (goal, belief, hope, etc.).

Nouns that behave like the one in column (4) are called mass nouns (or non-count nouns). They typically refer to things that are viewed as a mass rather than individual units, or which have no precise shape or boundary. Mass nouns also can be either concrete (milk, wool, spaghetti, etc.) or abstract (happiness, communism, integrity). They cannot usually be made plural (*two wools), nor do they take the indefinite article (*a wool). If we want to count mass nouns, we must add a count noun to specify the quantity (two glasses of milk).

Count/Mass as a Function

Nouns like those in column (5) (brick, cake, paper, stone, etc.) can take all the determiners that count nouns can take, as well as all the determiners that mass nouns can take. There is, however, a distinction in meaning. With stone or some stone, the mass-noun uses, noun phrase refers to the material; with stones, the count-noun use, the noun phrase refers to individual items. The stone, which can be used for both mass and count nouns, is ambiguous: we may be thinking of either material or an item. Often, context will make it clear which use is intended:

(4) The stone used in this building comes from Italy
(5) The stone that broke the window was lying on the floor.

In sentence (4), stone is used as a mass noun; in sentence (5) it is used as a count noun. Additionally, some nouns that are typically either mass or count can be pressed into service the other way. For example, butter is typically a mass noun, and it seems strange to say two butters, but we can use it in a count sense in a sentence like the following:

(6) She likes butters from Wisconsin better than those from other states.

For this reason, we say that nouns are not inherently mass or count, but are rather used in mass or count functions.

Noun-Phrase Structure

As the preceding discussion shows, some nouns can appear alone in a noun phrase, without a determiner or any other word. These nouns include many proper nouns, mass nouns, plural count nouns, and pronouns. (Remember, we are treating pronouns as a subtype of nouns.) Diagrams of such phrases are about as simple as they come:

simple NP diagrams[1]

Only a little more complex is the case of a noun appearing with a determiner. Determiners are extremely common in noun phrases. You will encounter a great many noun phrases that contain them. If you are still unclear about the category of determiner, you may want to review the relevant section of chapter 3 at this point

NP diagrams with determiners


[1] For the purposes of diagrams in this course, we will label proper nouns as “PropN” and pronouns as “Pro,” although it would be equally correct (although less specific) to label them as “N”. We will not distinguish mass from count nouns in the diagram.

The Determinative Function

Another fairly common type of NP is one containing a genitive:

(7) Garth’s reply

This NP looks almost the same as the NPs above, but Garth is a proper noun, not a determiner. And yet Garth seems to occupy the same “slot” in the noun phrase. Notice that we can use either a determiner or the proper noun, but not both:

(7a) the reply
(7b) *the Garth’s reply
(7c) *Garth’s the reply

At this point, you may be ready to assume that Garth’s actually is a determiner, but that conclusion leads to some unfortunate consequences. First, we would have to say that any noun could change its part of speech simply by adding the genitive inflection. In other words, the category of determiner, which we have already described as containing a small number of words that have a principally grammatical function becomes an open-ended set. Further, this slot isn’t just occupied by genitive nouns. It can be occupied by entire phrases:

(8) The President of Liberia’s mistake

If we’re going to call these determiners too, then we are saying that entire phrases can be described as a word category, making a mess of our descriptive system. The solution to this puzzle is to recognize that the contrast between (7) and (7a) is one of two different forms, a determiner on the one hand and a genitive noun on the other, that share a common function. We will call this function the determinative.[1] In its most basic semantic role, a determinative indicates the definiteness of a noun phrase. That is, it tells us whether the NP has a specific referent or not.

One interesting thing to note about the genitive inflection is that it doesn’t behave like a normal inflection (for example plural -s).

(8a) *The President’s of Liberia mistake

The mistake was not that of Liberia but of its president, and yet we find the ‘s inflection at the end of the whole phrase and not attached to the head noun, president. Indeed, in informal varieties of English, the word to which the ‘s attaches doesn’t even have to be a noun:

(9) The guy I was talking to’s resume
(10) The woman he plans to marry’s opinion

In contrast, the plural -s inflection attaches to the head noun, not the end of the phrase.

(11) The Presidents of Liberia
(11a) *The President of Liberias

Because the genitive inflection appears at the end of the entire phrase when the phrase contains more than one word, and because phrases often contain only one word, there is no good reason to assume that the genitive behaves differently with individual nouns than it does with multi-word phrases. Nevertheless, we will keep our diagrams simpler by omitting the NP node when the genitive is a single word.[2] We will diagram genitive NPs this way:

genitive NP diagrams

Notice in the diagrams above that the genitives are labeled for their function. We will use “det.” as an abbreviation for the determinative function. Don’t confuse this with the word category label D, for determiner. Also note that in the music’s beat, there are actually two determinatives. The music is the determinative for beat and the is the determinative for music. In other words, each NP has its own determinative slot. Because determiners prototypically fill the determinative function, we won’t bother to indicate this function in our diagrams when they are playing their ordinary role.

Pronouns fit easily into the above scheme. Since they are a type of noun, we treat them just like other one-word genitives:

genitive pronoun diagrams

Notice that the second example above, like the music’s beat, also contains two determinatives, but in this instance we did label our as a determinative because it is not a determiner.


[1] There is an unfortunate difference in terminology regarding the terms determiner and determinative. In The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, a work which was published in 1984 and which served as a major reference for a generation of other works on English grammar, the terms are used as they are in this text: determiner is a lexical category and determinative is a function. However, the major recent reference grammar, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, reverses the terms’ denotation. There, determiner is the function and determinative is the lexical category. The authors of the Cambridge Grammar provide no explanation for this switch, which is unfortunate as it is certain to breed confusion. As most other works use determiner for the lexical category, I have retained the more traditional terms here.

[2] If the inconsistency bothers you, see the aside “On Simplified Diagrams” at the end of chapter 7 for a detailed explanation of my reasoning.

Modifiers and Other Dependents

Noun phrases don’t just contain nouns and determinatives, of course. They also contain elements such as adjectives.

(13) these diligent workers

In (13) the adjective diligent is a modifier of the head noun workers. Modifier is a general term for optional elements in a phrase that add descriptive information about the head word. We have already seen some modifiers in the verb phrase: the adjuncts. The noun phrase also resembles the verb phrase in that it can contain contain complements. Distinguishing modifiers from complements in noun phrases, however, is much trickier than distinguishing them in verb phrases, and we will not do so in this course. Instead, we will content ourselves with simply lumping noun-phrase modifiers and complements into the broader category of dependent.

As we explore how to handle phrases such as the one in (13), we will consider several alternatives that we will wind up rejecting. Although you can skip to the end results, I strongly encourage you to follow along with the reasoning. The alternative analyses are ones that are used in other grammar books that you may encounter, and understanding why we should prefer one analysis over another is an important part of navigating grammar.

To explore the constituency of such phrases, I would like to begin looking at a traditional diagram to see what structure it assumes. A conventional Reed-Kellogg diagram of (13) would look like this:


This diagram tells us that these and diligent are both dependents of workers, but makes no further distinctions. If we translate this to a tree diagram, we get the following structure:


Although the labels on the tree diagram add more information, both diagrams make the same assertion about the phrase’s internal structure: we can distinguish the head word from the dependents, but otherwise there is no internal structure to the NP. Is this the correct account? In particular, do the words diligent workers form their own constituent? This question arises because diligent workers can function as a noun phrase in its own right. For example,

(14) You should give a raise to diligent workers.

So at first glance, it would seem logical to diagram diligent workers as a noun phrase within the larger NP.[1] Such a diagram would look like this:


If we are going to use this criterion for phrase-hood, though, we get an odd result if the NP is singular: this diligent worker, because diligent worker cannot function as a full NP.

(14a) *You should give a raise to diligent worker.

The criterion that first led us to suppose this might be an NP, however, is suspect. The question is not, “Can this string of words function as a phrase in any context,” but, “Does this string of words function as a phrase in this particular context.” Let’s apply our constituency tests to (14).

Remember that one of our tests is to create a cleft sentence, attempting to move the string of words we are testing to the front of the sentence. By this criterion, these diligent workers is a phrase but diligent workers is not, at least not when it is preceded by a determiner:

(14b) These diligent workers are whom you should give a raise to ___.
(14c) *Diligent workers are whom you should give a raise to these ___.[2]

Another test, pronoun substitution, yields a similar result. We can substitute the pronoun them for these diligent workers, but not for diligent workers alone:

(14d) You should give a raise to them.
(14e) *You should give a raise to this them.

If we apply the same tests to the singular form, this diligent worker, the results are be the same: this diligent worker is a phrase, and diligent worker is not.

(14f) This diligent worker is whom you should give a raise to ___.
(14g) *Diligent worker is whom you should give a raise to this ___.
(14h) You should give a raise to her.
(14i) *You should give a raise to this her.

At this point, we can reject the hypothesis that there are two nested NPs in this phrase. But before we revert to our first hypothesis that there is no internal structure to the NP, consider one further piece of data:

(15) If this diligent worker deserves a raise, that one does too.

As the parallel structure makes clear, one doesn’t just substitute for worker. It replaces diligent worker, even though that unit passes none of our tests for phrase-hood. In short, diligent worker is a grammatical constituent&mdah;it behaves as a single unit—but it is not a phrase. To account for this behavior, we will introduce a constituent that it intermediate between individual words and NPs. Traditional grammar has no name for this unit, but we will call it a nominal, abbreviated “Nom.”
With the addition of the nominal, a diagram of this diligent worker looks like this:


This diagram indicates that the words diligent worker form a constituent, the nominal, and that this constituent combines with the determiner this to form a complete noun phrase.

The nominal also helps explain the constituency of prepositional phrases that appear within noun phrases. Consider, for example, a phrase like (16):

(16) a poem by Keats

Once again, we must decide how to represent the constituency of the phrase. The “flat” view would be diagrammed like this:


But there is good reason to believe that the noun and the PP also form a nominal. Consider a sentence like (17):

(17) Elizabeth read every essay by Coleridge and poem by Keats.

Here, the determiner every must apply to each part of the coordination. In other words, and links the constituents essay by Coleridge and poem by Keats. Like diligent worker, these units will not pass our tests for phrase-hood. Once again, they are an intermediate unit; they are nominals. Our diagram will therefore look like this:



[1] One text that uses just such an analysis is Max Morenberg, Doing Grammar. 3rd. ed. Oxford UP, 2002.

[2] The “___” indicates the location of the clefted constituent in the original sentence.

Generalizing the Pattern

Let us pause a moment to take stock of our NP structure. We’ve only looked at a few relatively simple NPs, but already we have a number of different cases:

1.One-noun NPs, e.g., John, students,
2.Determinative + N, e.g., that book, Alison’s divorce,
3.Determinative + modifier + N, e.g., the unpleasant boy,
4.Determinative + N + modifier, e.g., the dog on the sofa.

Is there any general pattern here? We can easily formulate a general principle for cases 3 and 4 if we say that dependents other than determinatives combine to form nominals, whether those dependents appear before or after the head noun, and determinatives combine with nominals to form NPs.

Case 2 can be unified with this same formulation if we assume that book in that book or divorce in Alison’s divorce also constitute one-word nominals. We have already seen one-word phrases, so this assumption is not a stretch. In that case, our diagram would look like this:

diagram of {this book} with nominal

There is support other than theoretical symmetry for this analysis. One, which as we have seen substitutes for a nominal, can replace book alone. For example:

(18) This book has water damage, but that one is in perfect condition.

For this reason, we will assume that there is always a nominal level in every NP. As a practical matter, however, diagrams that show every single nominal become unwieldy and harder to read. We add a label that, because it is completely predictable, doesn’t add much useful information. So in our diagrams, we will only show a nominal node if it branches.

comparison diagrams of {this book} and {this new book}

What about case 1? Our assumption about nominals will apply here too. In other words, if we were diagramming non-branching nominals, a diagram of a one-word NP would look like this:

diagram of {cats} with nominal

The only thing that distinguishes this case from the others is the lack of a determinative. We will call such NPs bare because of this absence. One way to make our analysis consistent for all cases would be to represent the determinative slot as present but not filled by any audible word. In other words, we assume that every NP is formed by combining a determinative with a nominal.

diagram of {cats} with nominal and empty determinative

The question then becomes, what are we to make of this empty slot, which I have represented with the character ?. Much of the recent technical literature on syntax assumes that there is actually something in the slot, a silent determiner, often called a zero determiner. According to this view, the zero determiner behaves like other determiners in the sense that it helps specify the interpretation of the nominal. Notice, for example, that the meaning of the bare NP cats is not the same as the determined NP the cats. Of course that change in meaning is no proof that there is actually a silent determiner present in the bare NP. We could also simply say that the determiner slot in such cases is truly empty and attribute the difference in meaning to the absence of a determiner rather than the presence of a silent one. The theories that posit zero determiners typically have theory-internal reasons for doing so. But with the scheme that we are developing here, there is no particular reason to prefer one hypothesis over the other, and so we will apply Occam’s razor[1] and assume that there is, in fact, no determiner. Further, in keeping with our attempt to keep our diagrams free of unnecessary clutter, we will not diagram these empty determinative slots. In other words, we will diagram one-word NPs as shown earlier in this chapter, showing neither the nominative level nor the empty determinative.

Bare NPs do not always consist of one word. How should we represent phrases like stray cats? If we drew a diagram showing all our levels, it would look like this:

diagram of {stray cats} with empty determinative

If we remove the empty determinative slot from our diagram, we get the following:

diagram of {stray cats} with nominal

Although there’s nothing wrong with this representation, we can simplfy our diagrams still further and omit the nominal level in this case too. This leaves us with a relatively simple diagram:

simplified diagram of {stray cats}

To summarize, we assume that nominals are present in all noun phrases, but the diagrams in this course will only show them if there is a branch both above and below the nominal. If you find it more helpful to show these hidden levels, then by all means put them in your own diagrams, but do so consistently.


[1] The principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, prefer the hypothesis that creates the fewest complications. Postulating a silent entity is more complex than postulating simple absence.

Heads and Projection

Some students find the concept of nominals to be confusing. Remember that nominals are simply another constituent of grammar. Like other constituents such as phrases and clauses, they function as units. Like phrases, nominals also have heads. Remember that head words are important because their features play a role in how the entire phrase functions within the sentence. That’s why we name the phrase after the category of its head word. One way to think of this is that the properties of the word carry over to the phrase. Looking at how this works in a tree diagram, we can think of the properties of the head word as percolating up from the individual word to the phrase. The following diagram represents this “percolation” by showing the edges between the head words and their parent nodes as arrows.[1]

diagram showing head projection

With the diagram serving as a visual metaphor, we can say that the features of the head word project upward in the diagram. In the case of the phrase this diligent worker, the noun worker is the ultimate head of the whole phrase, as well as immediate head of the nominal diligent worker. But in the larger sentence, worker is not the head of any higher unit. There is no arrow from the direct object to the VP because the direct object doesn’t head the VP, the verb does. This observation gives us a way of conceptualizing the difference between nominals and NPs. Looking at the diagram, we can see that each phrase is the maximal projection of a head word. In other words, the head word’s features project up to the phrase level and no further. The nominal is a constituent that has a noun as its head, but it is not the maximal projection. A unit higher up in the tree also has the same word as its head.


[1] For present purposes, we treat the clause as non-headed, which is the traditional assumption.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Collaborative Textbook on English Syntax Copyright © 2022 by Matt Garley; Karl Hagen; and The Students of ENG 270 at York College / CUNY is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book