Noun phrases (grouping together a collection of words to act as one noun) are one of the keystones of academic writing. They allow you to pack a lot of information into a few words, a function which is extremely helpful when writing to a word count, or when trying to make a piece of writing concise. Additionally, once you recognise that strings of words (noun phrases) represent ideas which cannot be broken down, you may start to read texts in a different way, reading for 'chunks' of information rather than reading individual words.
To illustrate what noun phrases are and why they are useful in
To guide students through a series of exercises which will help them to practise constructing and deconstructing noun phrases.
'A noun' is the generic name we give to a word which names a person,
place, object, thing, concept or event. Whilst there are some
exceptions to the rule, this basic description works in most cases.
However, in academic writing, using one word or one noun is not always
enough. Quite often we need to describe a place, object, person,
concept or event with more than one word, in order to convey a complete
message. For example, 'The Francis Bancroft Building'.
In this example, it was not enough for Lucy to say 'building' as there are many buildings on the Mile End Campus. Juan needed to know exactly which building she was talking about. Lucy therefore modified the term 'building' with the words Francis and Bancroft. Collectively, the three words behave as one. This is, in essence, a noun phrase; a collection of words which work together.
Read the sentences below and identify which sentences have noun phrases and which do not. Put a tick or a cross in the appropriate button, before checking your answer with the feedback.
The People's Palace is in the Queen's Building.
The teacher told the students to be quiet.
The James Mason Lecture Theatre is in the Francis Bancroft building.
The Cultural and Social Anthropology Department deal with the many aspects of the social lives of people around the world.
The English for Academic Purposes Modules run by the highly qualified teachers in the language and learning unit, are available to all students of Queen Mary University of London.
Science and Engineering degrees are run by the school of Science and Engineering.
All of the sentences contain a noun phrase, although sentence 2's
noun phrases are in fact just one word.
Sentence 1: The People's Palace The Queen's Building
Sentence 2: The teacher The students
Sentence 3: The James Mason Lecture Theatre The Francis Bancroft building
Sentence 4: The Cultural and Social Anthropology Department The many aspects of the social lives of people around the world
Sentence 5: The English for Academic PUrposes Modules The highly qualified teachers in the Language and Learning Unit
Sentence 6: Science and Engineering degrees The school of Science and Engineeing
Not all noun phrases are preceded by an article (see sentence 6). You will have to apply the rules of articles to any noun phrase that you use. For more information, take a look at the articles learning object.
As already shown, using one noun is not always sufficient to convey
a full message. Quite often nouns needs to be modified (have
information added to them) in order to communicate the full message.
Such information can be added before, or after the main noun.
Imagine you were standing in a bicycle shop, trying to buy a bike which was not out on display, but which was in a catalogue (which you had left at home). You would need to give a considerable amount of information to the sales assistant, so that when s/he went into the stock room to get the bike for you, they would know exactly which bike you were referring to. If they did not have all of the necessary information, they would have to keep coming back to the shopfloor to ask you questions about the bike.
I want to buy the bike.
I want to buy the mountain bike.
I want to buy the red, mountain bike.
I want to buy the red, Marin, mountain bike.
I want to buy the red, Marin, women's, mountain bike.
I want to buy the red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike.
I want to buy the lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike.
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike.
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike [with the shimano gears].
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike [with the shimano gears and disk brakes].
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike [with the shimano gears, disk brakes and front suspension].
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike [with the shimano gears, disk brakes, front suspension and alloy pedals].
I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike [with the shimano gears, disk brakes, front suspension, alloy pedals and Bontranger tyres].
All of the information which has been added between the word 'buy' and the word 'with', is the noun phrase. Any information after the word 'with' is part of a prepositional phrase. Linguistically speaking, this prepositional phrase is a separate entity. However, for the purposes of 'chunking' ideas and conveying a complete message you should think of it as being part of the noun phrase, as it gives information about the main noun 'the bike'.
Modify the noun phrase 'the lecturer' by adding information in between the words 'the' and 'lecturer'.
Try to think of distinguishing features which could separate one of your lecturers from another. For example, which subject they teach, or personal characteristics such as young, old, friendly, well spoken, fat, thin, female, male, tall, short etc.
A possible answer could be, 'the history lecturer'
The , lecturer
A possible answer could be, 'The young history lecturer'
The , , lecturer
A possible answer could be, 'The young, friendly, history lecturer'
The , , , , lecturer
A possible answer could be, 'The young, friendly, Oxford educated, history lecturer'
The , , , , , lecturer
A possible answer could be, 'The helpful, young, friendly, Oxford educated, history lecturer'
In the following exercise we will look a little closer at the grammar of noun phrases.
Look at the noun phrase 'I want to buy the expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain bike'. Answer the questions beneath by putting a mark in the correct check box.
The head noun is the only word in the phrase which is obligatory.
That is, it is the only word which cannot be removed.
For example, in the noun phrase 'The Excellence in Writing Course', 'Course' is the only word which cannot be omitted. The other words in the phrase give additional information which, although essential for conveying a message, could be added in a separate sentence, just as we saw in the cartoon at the start of this learning object.
A: I'm going to do the course
B: Which course?
A: The excellence in writing course.
Q1) Look at the example of the noun phrase about the mountain bike. Which is the head (main) noun?
The main noun is 'bike'.
Q2) What is the position of the words 'expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain' in the sentence? Do they appear before or after the main noun?
Q3) What type of words are expensive, lightweight, red, 17" frame, Marin, women's, mountain?
Grammatically speaking, these words are both nouns and adjectives.
However, the nouns are acting as adjectives in this noun phrase,
because they are modifying the head noun 'bike'.
Adjectives: expensive, lightweight, red.
Nouns: frame, Marin, women, mountain
Noun phrases can also be made by adding information after the main
Q: Who is your history teacher?
A: My teacher is the young one educated at Oxford.
In this example, 'educated at Oxford' comes after the noun 'teacher', rather than before it. Whilst the information comes after the noun, the idea in the words 'educated at Oxford' is still vitally important to the description of the teacher. In fact, the phrase the young one educated at Oxford acts as one complete idea.
Another way to create a noun phrase is to add a prepositional phrase (as seen in the example of the mountain bike). In this example, the preposition 'in' and the words 'the kitchen', are all fundamental to the idea being expressed. They cannot be separated from each other.
Q: Where is the book?
A: The book is on the table in the kitchen
Q: Which table?
A: The table in the kitchen
Other ways of creating noun phrases include using an 'ing' form after the noun. In this example, an 'ing' form has been used after the noun, but again, the ideas are linked and should not be separated.
Teacher : I became really irritated with the amount of mobile phones ringing during the lesson today.
The following exercises will open in an external window.
Put the parts in order to make a noun phrase which gives information after the main noun. Use the examples above to help you.. When you think your answer is correct, click on "Check" to check your answer. If you get stuck, click on "Hint" to find out the next correct part.
The book published by Cambridge University Press
The man wearing the cycling shorts is the one who takes me for
My laptop is plugged into the socket in the bedroom.
The student who did exceptionally well in their exam is the one at the back chewing gum.
You need to put your empty wine bottles in the bin marked 'glass'.
In the following activity you will learn how to identify the head noun of a noun phrase. This will help you to deconstruct the noun phrase, which in turn will help you to feel more confident about building them.
Look at the sentences below and decide which word is the main noun in the noun phrase. Tick the correct option and then check your answers with the feedback.
1. Government web activity was frozen during the general election campaign.
2. Mouse-wielding civil servants across Whitehall are engaged in a frantic rush to archive old pages full of defunct policies.
3. The Downing Street site has undergone a few changes too.
4. She swallowed the dog which ate the cat which ate the bird which chased the spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
In the last activity in this Learning Object you will start to focus on noun phrases in a longer piece of text. This is more reflective of the tasks you will have to carry out when writing at university.
Read the following extract and try to identify all of the noun phrases. Write your answers in the text box beneath before checking your answers with the feedback.
Autonomous learning has been defined as ‘the ability to take charge of one’s own learning’ and it is associated with students taking a more active role in the learning process (Holec, 1981). The autonomous learner is viewed as an ‘independent, self-directed life-long learner’ (Betts, 2004). These students, therefore, do not confine themselves to the material being taught, but rather take an active role in seeking and processing information and developing transfer skills to apply information in a broader context for their own needs or interests (Chan, 2003). For the purpose of defining someone as educated, they must be able to incorporate new information with old, actively engaging in the process of learning, rather than simply learning content (Barr and Tag, 1995; Cross, 1999; Greene, 1988; Howell, 2002, 2006). Suggested modes of promoting learner autonomy include tiered assignments (with one assignment building on the foundation of the previous), flexible groupings (which allows for students to pick and choose within assignments) (Betts, 2004), and problem-based learning (students are given the opportunity to engage in independent problem solving) (Van Den Hurk, 2006). The education process should be viewed as long-term aptitude development effort that seeks to foster personal preparedness for later stages of life (Jimenez Raya and Perez Fernandez, 2002). Therefore, it is important to identify methodological/pedagogical frameworks that foster the development of learner autonomy.
[Autonomous learning] has been defined as ‘[the ability to take
charge of one’s own learning]’ and it is associated with [students
taking a more active role in the learning process] (Holec, 1981). [The
autonomous learner] is viewed as [an ‘independent, self-directed
life-long learner’] (Betts, 2004). [These students], therefore, do not
confine themselves to [the material being taught], but rather take [an
active role in seeking and processing information and developing
transfer skills to apply information in a broader context for their own
needs or interests] (Chan, 2003). For [the purpose of defining someone
as educated], they must be able to incorporate [new information with
old], actively engaging in [the process of learning], rather than
simply learning [content] (Barr and Tag, 1995; Cross, 1999; Greene,
1988; Howell, 2002, 2006). Suggested [modes] of promoting [learner
autonomy] include [tiered assignments] (with [one assignment building]
on [the foundation of the previous]), [flexible groupings] (which
allows for students to pick and choose within assignments) (Betts,
2004), and [problem-based learning] (students are given [the
opportunity to engage in independent problem solving]) (Van Den Hurk,
2006). [The education process] should be viewed as [long-term aptitude
development effort that seeks to foster personal preparedness for later
stages of life] (Jimenez Raya and Perez Fernandez, 2002). Therefore, it
is important to identify [methodological/pedagogical frameworks that
foster the development of learner autonomy].
In conclusion, this learning object has shown the importance of noun
phrases. It has also highlighted how using a long noun phrase can
enable you to write sentences which are compact, and which contain a
considerable amount of information without being incredibly complex. It
has also illustrated that recognising noun phrases can shape the way in
which you read text thus enabling you to be more critical in your
For further reading about noun phrases, follow the links below:
UCL Internet Grammar
The University of Southampton
Vandiver, D. M. & J.A. Walsh. (2010). Assessing autonomous learning in research methods courses: Implementing the student-driven research project. Active Learning in Higher Education 11/1. pp 31 – 42.
© Jessica Cooper/ Queen Mary University of London /photograph used under creative commons attribution license courtesy of Dr Jibba / comic produced with the use of Make Beliefs Comix..