Head (Words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson on the set of "Casablanca."
Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson pose for a publicity still for the Warner Bros film 'Casablanca' in 1942.

Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

In English grammar, a head is the key word that determines the nature of a phrase (in contrast to any modifiers or determiners).

For example, in a noun phrase, the head is a noun or pronoun ("a tiny sandwich"). In an adjective phrase, the head is an adjective ("completely inadequate"). In an adverb phrase, the head is an adverb ("quite clearly").

A head is sometimes called a headword, though this term shouldn't be confused with the more common use of headword to mean a word placed at the beginning of an entry in a glossary, dictionary, or other reference work.

Also Known As

head word (HW), governor

Examples and Observations

  • "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."(Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca, 1942)
  • "As the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man."(Sydney Greenstreet as Senor Ferrari in Casablanca, 1942)
  • "The head of the noun phrase a big man is man, and it is the singular form of this item which relates to the co-occurrence of singular verb forms, such as is, walks, etc.; the head of the verb phrase has put is put, and it is this verb which accounts for the use of object and adverbial later in the sentence (e.g. put it there). In phrases such as men and women, either item could be the head."(David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)

Testing for Heads

"Noun phrases must contain a head. Most frequently this will be a noun or pronoun, but occasionally it can be an adjective or determiner. The heads of noun phrases can be identified by three tests:

1. They cannot be deleted.
2. They can usually be replaced by a pronoun.
3. They can usually be made plural or singular (this may not be possible with proper names).

Only test 1 holds good for all heads: the results for 2 and 3 depend on the type of head." (Jonathan Hope, Shakespeare's Grammar. Bloomsbury, 2003)

Determiners as Heads

"Determiners may be used as heads, as in the following examples:

Some arrived this morning.
I have never seen many.
He gave us two

Like third person pronouns these force us to refer back in the context to see what is being referred to. Some arrived this morning makes us ask 'Some what?', just as He arrived this morning makes us ask 'Who did?' But there is a difference. He stands in place of a whole noun phrase (e.g. the minister) while some is part of a noun phrase doing duty for the whole (e.g. some applications). . . .

"Most determiners occurring as heads are back-referring [that is, anaphoric]. The examples given above amply illustrate this point. However, they are not all so. This is especially the case with this, that, these, and those. For instance, the sentence Have you seen these before? could be spoken while the speaker is pointing to some newly built houses. He is then not referring 'back' to something mentioned, but referring 'out' to something outside the text [that is, exophora]."

(David J. Young, Introducing English Grammar. Taylor & Francis, 2003) 

Narrower and Wider Definitions

"There are two main definitions [of head], one narrower and due largely to Bloomfield, the other wider and now more usual, following work by R.S. Jackendoff in the 1970s.

1. In the narrower definition, a phrase p has a head h if h alone can bear any syntactic function that p can bear. E.g. very cold can be replaced by cold in any construction: very cold water or cold water, I feel very cold or I feel cold. Therefore the adjective is its head and, by that token, the whole is an 'adjective phrase.'

2. In the wider definition, a phrase p has a head h if the presence of h determines the range of syntactic functions that p can bear. E.g. the constructions into which on the table can enter are determined by the presence of a preposition, on. Therefore the preposition is its head and, by that token, it is a 'prepositional phrase.'"

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Head (Words)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/head-words-tern-1690922. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Head (Words). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/head-words-tern-1690922 Nordquist, Richard. "Head (Words)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/head-words-tern-1690922 (accessed June 1, 2023).