The Structure of English Language — Phrases

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Noun phrases | adjective phrases | adverb phrases | prepositional phrases | pronoun phrases | verb phrases

Noun phrases

The noun phrase (NP) is the main construction which can be the object, subject or complement of a clause. It must contain a noun or noun-like word (such as a pronoun) which is the main element, and which is called the head. It may contain other elements, either before or after the head. These could include predeterminers, determiners, postdeterminers, premodifiers and postmodifiers. The examples in the table below show how noun phrases can grow in length, while their structure remains fairly clear.

Noun Phrases

Noun phrase structure
Verb phrase
(not part of noun phrase)
        Buns   are for sale.
  The     buns   are for sale.
All the   currant buns   are for sale.
Not quite all the   currant buns   are for sale.
Not quite all the   hot tasty currant buns   are for sale.
Not quite all the   hot tasty currant buns on the table are for sale.
Not quite all the many hot tasty currant buns on show on the table are for sale.
Not quite all the very many fine hot tasty currant buns which I cooked are for sale.

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Adjective phrases

These are usually formed from an intensifier, followed by the head (an adjective, shown underlined below). Examples include very happy, not too awkward, and cold enough. They may also be formed from an adjective and a verb construction, such as easy to please, loath to do it.

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Adverb phrases

These are intensifying expressions formed from an intensifier (optional), followed by the head (an adverb, shown underlined below), followed by a postmodifier (optional). Examples would be: terribly slowly, very happily indeed, exceptionally carefully, completely utterly dangerously, quite often and very soon.

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Prepositional phrases (adverbials/adjectivals)

These are formed from the head (a preposition, shown underlined in the examples), followed by a noun phrase. Examples of prepositional phrases are in the teapot, on the toilet, and round the bend.

  • They may be called adverbials since their usual function is to qualify a verb in the same way as an adverb does. You can test this by replacing a given prepositional phrase with an adverb - for example: Fred swam in the river and Fred swam swiftly. Both of these are grammatically standard forms.
  • They may also function as adjectives: the pirate with the wooden leg.

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Pronoun phrases

These are restricted to a small number of constructions, and are sometimes regarded as a minor type of noun phrase. They are formed from a head (a pronoun, shown in bold below) with a pre- or postmodifier. Examples would be: Silly me! You there! she herself, we all, nearly everyone, and such relative clause types as those who knew Fred.

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Verb phrases

These are quite simple syntactically, although the verb in them may contain important grammatical information, such as tense, number, active or passive voice and so on. (All of these are explained above in the section on word categories). One or more auxiliaries may precede the head (a verb participle, shown in bold below). Examples would be: has died, may have gone, might have been listening. You may be puzzled by the simplicity of these models. Don't be. In order to explain the more complex function of verbs in the predicates of sentences (what they say about their subject), we use the structural model of the clause.

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