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A description of the noun phrase


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The noun - Introduction to the noun group
MODAL VERBS Characteristics
MODAL AUXILIARIES - General characteristics of modal verbs
Put the verbs in brackets into the correct form
PRONOUN AGREEMENT - Choose the correct form
Test Paper - Put the following words into the correct sentences


1.  In the development of linguistics, the use of morphological data was the first attempt made to construct a coherent model of linguistic behaviour. The morpheme theory still convinces us of its validity, but it is of limited value. It could not handle many features of the language. Morphemes, the minimal meaningful units, which it is the purpose of a grammar to organize into various structures, have witnessed  a considerable change in their role since they were first introduced into linguistic analysis. They are invaluable as a concept for agglutinative languages, but the English language needed something to perform the movement away from morphology into the field of syntax.

            The concept of sentence as the maximal unit of grammatical analysis (knowing, however, that there are larger constructions, such as utterance, paragraph, text / discourse) has helped in accounting for a wide range of grammatical structures. Charles C. Fries’s “The Structure of English”, published in l952, dealt solely with syntax, and was the most systematic application of a structuralist approach to language that had been attempted.

            An interesting reaction to the general linguistic predispositions of the preceding decades was N. Chomsky’s proposals in “Syntactic Structures”, published in l957. He assigned to S (standing for any sentence) a particular phrase structure. On it, the transformational rules applied made the various relationships between different types of sentence explicit.


2.         In the hierarchy of the units of grammar, we must see clauses ( the unit immediately superior to phrase) as consisting of one or more phrases, and phrases as consisting of one or more words. Examine the boxed units below:

The teacher noticed an outrageous mistake.

the teacher

noticed an outrageous mistake


an outrageous mistake







            All the units other than the topmost one are called constituents, and all the units other than the lowest one are constructions. In other words, a constituent is a part of some unit higher in the hierarchy; a construction is made up of units lower in the hierarchy. The NP “the teacher” can therefore be looked upon as both a constituent and a construction by virtue of different criteria. Note also that the words are not syntactic constructions because they are the minimal units of syntax, and the sentence is not a constituent because it is the maximal unit of syntax.

3.  A phrase is a construction which contains obligatory and optional elements and which is named after the part of speech which has a primary function within the respective phrase. It is a stretch of language which constitutes a semantic whole. There are five phrase types, functioning as clause elements:

(a)  noun phrases                   Her father was an overworked business man.

(b)  verb phrases                   She never signs herself Brown.

(c)  adjective phrases            Tired of playing fairy, the child was now sitting with her head

                                                on my shoulder.

(d)  adverb phrases               Quite normally, late nights have a bad effect on people

(e)  prepositional phrases      In terms of the financial estimates, the company was far

                                                     from bankruptcy.

            It should be noted that only prepositional phrases have two compulsory elements  -  the preposition and the central constituent of the NP to follow. Hence one can see the importance of NPs in English sentences as a consequence of multiplicity of function: subject, object, complement, adverbial.

4.  We should specify a couple of things about the reference of an NP. The concept of  reference points to the relation between a semantic unit and an object in real life: this can be expressed as the relation between language and non-language.( In metalinguistic reference, for instance our presentation now, language refers to language as an object of study by virtue of its property called reflexiveness.) We shall be interested in more specific aspects of reference, classified as exophoric vs. endophoric (as established by the criterion distance from reality), generic vs. non-generic (the criterion is degree of generality of the statement), divided vs. undivided (the material essence of the object referred to).

            To turn to  NPs again, they refer semantically to aspects of the experience of a speaker which are perceived as “things” or “entities”. “Thing” is a vague term indeed, but it is generally considered to cover persons, objects, names of actions, places, institutions, relationships, abstractions, emotions, phenomena and possibly other classes of entities. This type of experiential information is exhaustively covered by Roget’s Thesaurus of Synonyms and  Antonyms (for example, the l994 edition, Ramboro-London) in which the synopsis of categories includes Class I: ABSTRACT RELATIONS; Class II: SPACE; Class III : MATTER; Class IV: INTELLECT; Class V : VOLITION; Class VI : AFFECTIONS, each with a number of subdivisions.

            Mention should be made, even if in passing here, to coreferentiality  -  reference to the same entity  -  as distinct from reference to different entities. For example, if the subject and the direct object in a sentence are co-referent, reflexive pronominalization occurs:

            Mary expressed Mary in French ® Mary expressed herself in French.

            In modifying elements, the items of information usually describe inherent, more permanent qualities of the head, whereas in qualifying elements the information is of a temporary, extrinsic kind. Compare navigable rivers to rivers navigable at this time of year. The post-head specification is potentially of a greater length (an embedded group or clause) than the pre-head one.

            When personal pronouns are seen as heads of Nps, they are interpreted by means of identification in the text of the noun or noun phrase for which they substitute. An exception are first and second persons  -  I, YOU, WE, US  - since they refer to participants in the speech situation.

5.  The NP structure can be described as follows: nouns, sometimes pronouns, occupy the head position and refer to the participants in the situation described in the clause. The head takes a wide range of dependent items: (l) determiners in the form of (a) determinatives (the, some, which, etc.); (b) possessive constructions ( the cat’s, my daughter’s, a year’s, the Member of Parliament’s, etc.); (c) cardinal numerals; (2) adjectives as modifiers, (3) restrictive relative clauses as qualifiers. Those are the most distinctive dependents. (l) and (2) precede the head; (3) follows it. Consider the example with two terminological sets and suggested abbreviations:

                        the last two      unkept    promises    that I could hear from you

                                ¯                  ¯               ¯                            ¯

                   DETERMINERS          PREMODIFIER         HEAD                         POSTMODIFIER

                         DETERMINATIVES          MODIFIER             HEAD                             QUALIFIER

                                      DET.                               M                        H                                          Q

6.  Any element of an NP can be realised recursively, within the process of expanding linguistic units. Each element of structure can be realised more than once. Recursion/ recursiveness is the property of language to repeat any unit. It is creative use of language, but it cannot be abused. The speaker obtains a complex, such as pre- and post-operative care; happy though poor; many undergraduates and a number of graduates; over the wall and into the garden. Inside recursive formulas, the relationships established can be either paratactic or hypotactic. The former is a coordinating relationship and the elements are of equal grammatical status; the latter is a subordinating relationship and the elements are of unequal grammatical status. Both relationships can be realised syndetically (by a conjunction) or asyndetically (without a conjunction; instead, in writing, a comma is necessary or, in speech, a slight pause). Let us illustrate the expansion of each element of an NP by means of  recursion:

(a) recursive determiner                    half this last chapter

(b) recursive modifier                        an unattractive yellowish Venetian manuscript

(c) recursive qualifier                        everything most interesting to remember

             Finally, a recursive head can be (a) asyndetically coordinated ( Her brother is my boss, my worst enemy, my bad dream) and (b) syndetically coordinated ( You or I or someone will be made to feel guilty).

7.  We shall be interested also in the cases when an element of the NP conflates its own function and the function of the unexpounded head element. Thus, an elliptical head is found in the following example:

            The girl cared for yellow roses, but her sister said she preferred red D (= red roses)

            When determiners such as those, each, many, twenty, etc. stand alone, they are used pronominally and they are heads themselves and not elliptical heads, according to most grammarians. Then, there is the case of the conversion of adjectives, such as the humble, for which the head “people” is not named, but if named, this head leads to the omission of the definite determiner.

            There has been signalled the tendency of heads and postmodifiers to be ellipted, and this has been called final ellipsis. For example:

            Although Mary’s world of daydreams seemed to vanish, they were left with Lily’s.

The grammar rule of ellipsis states that some items in the antecedent are repudiated or semantically cancelled out. The two constructions  -  one with a full form, the other one elliptical  -  must have a degree of parallelism; in the most appropriate manner, they should have a contrastive relationship. In the particular case of genitive constructions, a sentence like

            I have to admit that your photos are as good as Tom’s

is interpreted to be an example of ellipsis. At the same time, “ are as good as his” is said to have a possessive pronoun functioning as head, so strictly speaking this is an example of substitution. The sentence It’s about time you went to the barber’s is treated as situational ellipsis, because the genitive does not have an antecedent for its ellipted head. Sometimes cataphoric ellipsis occurs:

            My first D was a failure but my second essay brought such praise that I was

            thrilled to bits.

            Grammars do not treat an example such as You are my favourite as ellipsis, in spite of appearances. The last item is said to be a noun derived from an adjective by conversion, and this interpretation is supported by the behaviour of the last item when it is inflected for the plural number: You are my favourites said by a teacher to one of his classes of pupils.

8.  Substitution of H can be described in the following way: in a stretch of language, a previously mentioned noun is referred to by a word which has no semantic identity of its own, but only the grammatical function of substituting for that noun. Grammars call the items  such, same, one/ones substitute heads, the first two displaying the additional semantic feature of “comparison”. We shall deal with them in turn.

(a) THE SAME substitutes for a whole NP:

            The streets are infested with a band of religious beggars. They wear loose black

            gowns and sandals, and their wives the same. (= loose black gowns and sandals)

THE SAME here expresses similarity. In

            “What make of car are you going to buy?” “The same as I always buy.” (= the

            same make of car)

THE SAME is an elliptical adjectival head and it expresses identity. In this case THE SAME can be followed by ONE. In other examples, THE SAME extends beyond NPs and substitutes for a whole clause:

            “The exam lasted too long.” “I think the same.”

            The broad scope of reference has led to the use of THE SAME in a number of colloquial expressions: It’s all the same (= it doesn’t matter); Just the same ( = Nevertheless); Same to you! (= I wish you the same thing); Same again! (customer to bartender).

(b) SUCH refers anaphorically or cataphorically to an NP ( Is this what you call the house of my dreams? I wouldn’t consider it as such = as the house of my dreams) or it substitutes for a previous clause ( Someone left a small parcel twisted up in thin white paper; such was the surprise he had promised = that was the surprise).

            When SUCH expresses similarity, it substitutes for a noun similar in meaning with other nouns in the context:

            The windows were open to admit the sun-warmed air, and also flies, bees or some


SUCH can be analysed here as an elliptical determinative head. The implied head should be a hyperonym of the preceding nouns, such as “insects”.

            An exophoric type of reference for SUCH can be found in the following text where there is no clue about what the item can cover:

            He advised me to take such and such into account.

            SOME SUCH above means quantification, and so do MANY SUCH and NONE SUCH:

            Boas grow to a great length. Many such have frightened the locals. But none such

            survived their guns.

(c) ONE does not replace a whole antecedent NP, but only part of it and is also accompanied by a determiner, a modifier or a qualifier. We shall illustrate with the longest NP to include them all:

            She was overwhelmed by the verdict, that unjust, belated one which you didn’t know

             how to take.

ONE refers to a singular count noun and can be used alone:

            These are interesting books. I’ll have one.

ONES cannot be used alone: I’ll have the most recent ones.

To use “this one” is correct, but not the plural “these ones”. Compare:

            I’ll take this one. I’ll take these.

ONE/ONES can be omitted after superlatives:

            I’ll choose the most promising (ones).


9.  Pre- and post-modifiers can be described either as restrictive or non-restrictive. In the first case, the head is viewed as linguistically identified only through the modification supplied by the respective NP:

            The big bottle was set in a corner and the one smaller and half-empty on the window-


Additional information which is not essential for identifying the head is called nonrestrictive:

            Helen, who is half an angel already, is an example to all of us and I couldn’t ask

            anything better than to have my naughty daughter take pattern after her.

A difference in emphasis can be pointed out: restrictive modification is given more prosodic emphasis, with the differentiating nuance that nonrestrictive premodification seems to signal a speaker’s wish to be taken for granted in what he informs us about, whereas restrictive premodification, just like restrictive postmodification, is interpreted as a specific means of identification. when the relation head - modifier is parenthetic, the written message is enclosed by commas and the spoken message gets a separate tone unit.

            Greenbaum & Quirk (l99l:366) comment on the higher degree of explicitness that goes with postmodification. We can exemplify starting from the contrast between the most envied person on earth and the person on earth whom she most envied, the latter example improving the message when it ascribes the action to a specified human being. On the other hand, postmodification itself can be shown to cover stages in ever more severe reduction of explicitness:

            the schemes which were rioting in her brains   (a)

            the schemes rioting in her brains                       (b)

            the schemes in her brains                                   (c)

When compared to (c), (b) benefits from the indication contained in specified action and (a) adds the information on tense and also gender agreement of the relative pronoun with the head of the NP.

            Another aspect of explicitness is the ambiguity that arises in premodification and is worked out in postmodification. Thus, the NP mysterious confabulation can be paraphrased as:  conversation that is confidential, therefore inaccessible to an outsider (a)

      conversation that sounds strange                                                             (b)

      conversation that is kept secret by the interlocutors                                (c)

      conversation that is personal and on an inexplicable topic                     (d)

Or we can come across examples which are ambiguous not in point of effects, but of actions performed. For example: news room can be paraphrased as

      the room in a library where you can consult newspapers                         (a)

      the room in an editorial office where they write the news                       (b)

      the stall where you can buy the press                                                        (c)

l0.  A problem of syntagmatic arrangement is put forth by discontinuous NPs. Let us exemplify: the city of London proper; the best idea possible; a larger house than theirs; the easiest lesson to teach; too boring a book to read; daring enough a manager to test the market now; comparable mistakes to mine; an attractive  proposal financially. These are examples (most of them comparisons) of postponement achieved for end-focus or end-weight. They can be referred to as internal discontinuities, since elements within the NP are affected and in order to make our grammar point we were not forced to intervene with material not forming part of the NP. But there are cases when postmodifying clauses are postponed:

            Children, the time has come to decorate the house for Christmas.

To this, we add the case of postmodifying phrases of exception:

            All of them wanted to return except the youngest child.

            An NP in apposition with an emphatic reflexive pronouns allows nuclear stress to fall on the postponed pronoun:

            I showed him the mice myself.

            Another pronominal apposition involving all, both, each postpones the second member of the apposition to a position immediately following the operator:

            The stockings had all been filled by Santa Claus.

            When adjectives take complementation in the form of prepositional phrases, discontinuity takes place by the frequent insertion of degree adverbials:

            She was to be pitied, though some were fond to some extent of her early paintings.

            I have my hands full with Cathy and she is different in many respects from what you

            might expect.

11.  Due to the fact that an apposition is primarily a relation between Nps, we shall define it here and have a summary treatment of a number of aspects.

            Two linguistic units called appositives must be identical in reference. The relationship denoted by apposition is analogous to a copular relationship: appositive l is appositive 2.

(l)   Mrs Worrett, an old friend of Aunt Izzie’s, was in the habit of coming for luncheon, on days when business brought her into town.

(2)   Mrs Worrett, who was an old friend of Aunt Izzie’s, was in the habit of

(3)   Mrs Worrett was in the habit of

(4)   An old friend of Aunt Izzie’s was in the habit of

Sentence (l) is the original statement. Sentence (2) shows that appositive 2 in sentence (l) may be considered to be the reduction of a relative clause. There are grammarians who include nonrestrictive relative clauses among appositives, as long as the coreference between the WH-word in the clause and the antecedent NP is obvious. Sentences (3) and (4) are meant to show how the appositives  -  units of the same rank  - can be omitted each in turn and the reference of the two resultant sentences is the same.

            Grammar books describe apposition in detail, recording the combinations of appositional types introduced as full vs. partial, strict vs. weak, nonrestrictive vs. restrictive. We shall not insist here. We will only wish to call attention upon the presence of one appositive acting as the defined element (in our example, “Mrs Worrett”) and the other one with a defining role (= the definer) (in our example, “an old friend of Aunt Izzie’s”). We must add that in our example, which is nonrestrictive, we find two more restrictive appositions, namely two pairs of appositives: “Mrs” and “Worrett”; “Aunt” and “Izzie”. They belong to the class of appositives with names of persons.

            Greenbaum & Quirk (l99l:383) caution against believing that appositives need be noun phrases exclusively, and they exemplify with the following statements having the appositives underlined:

            She is bigger than her brother, heavier, that is.

            Sixthly and lastly, I reject the claim on ethical grounds.

l2.  We will eventually refer to such sentences as syntactically anomalous to some extent. Consider the examples:

            Like master, like man.

            More haste, less speed.

            The less said, the better.

            Out of sight, out of mind.

            No work, no money.

            Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

They appear to be elliptical, retaining the nominal part. Their pattern is the structural balancing of two equivalent constructions. These verbless proverbs are dubbed aphoristic sentences by syntacticians. The list of verbless clauses can be lengthened with such illustrations as existential patterns in colloquial English:

(l)   The aunt gave the little scamps such a shake, and no mistake.

(2)   She might have made no promises, and nobody the less happy.

(3)   Aunt Ann rapped her over the head with a thimble, and she so sensitive.

(4)   Who wiser than you?

(5)   Just my luck, your forgetting about my debts.

The examples above evince various logical relationships: coordination of the basic statement with a comment   -  “ and there was no mistake about that”(l); “nobody would have been less happy than they are now”  -  implicit conditional in (2); “ although she is so  -   concession in (3); “who should be”  -  the rhetoric of a hypothetical subjunctive transmitting  the meaning of a superlative in (4); the first appositive member in an apposition producing an identification in (5).

            In informal conversations, exclamatory NPs are also called nonsentences. They generally communicate scorn and disapproval as shown below:

            Dirty place! The fuss you can make! The way they beat the child! Him and his upsetting grin ! Of all the hobbies you might have taken up!

            Another type of nonsentences, by contrast, can show total approval:

            Good girl! A perfectly lovely person!

These can easily acquire ironical overtones. Nps  can convey sheer information: That way! Fire! No more noise! They can request information: Your name? Tasty? The category of case, the vocative in particular, will later resume this problem in our investigation.



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