Grammar: Nominal

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

A nominal is a word or phrase (like guitar, table, or cup of coffee) that functions like a noun phrase. (Jed Share/Getty Images)


In English grammar, the term nominal refers to a noun or noun phraseor to any word or word group that functions as a noun. Also known as a substantive.

"As a noun," says Geoffrey Leech, "nominal is used for a constituent of a noun phrase intermediate in extent between a noun phrase and a noun. For example, in the noun phrase a nice cup of tea, it makes sense to say that nice is a modifier of a cup of tea, rather than just the head noun cup.

Hence we can say that cup of tea is a nominal, which is larger than a single noun but smaller than the whole noun phrase."
(A Glossary of English Grammar, 2006)

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

From the Latin, "name"

Examples and Observations

  • "In the system of parts of speech nouns originally included adjectives: hence, in particular, a nominal sentence or clause is one in which the predicative element is an adjective or noun phrase without a copula. Thus, exceptionally in English, Nothing easier! In some modern accounts, the categories noun and adjective are likewise said to share a feature [+ nominal]."
    (P.H. Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 1997)

Nouns and Pronouns

  • "A new referent is likely to be introduced first by a proper noun such as Vera or Mother, when the speaker expects the addressee to be able to identify the referent. Otherwise, a full nominal group containing descriptive information is used (a/the girl I met this morning at the Post Office). Subsequent mentions can be carried out by pronouns, which are 'lighter' than nouns and much lighter than extended nominal groups."
  • (Angela Downing and Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course. Taylor & Francis, 2006)
  • "All pronouns share the property of deixis, but differ from nominal expressions in that nominal expressions such as proper nouns always refer to the same elements in the real world, independent of the specific speaker context, while pronouns refer to various objects in the real world in a way that is dependent on the specific linguistic context of the utterance. Thus, the proper name Mozart usually refers to the same individual, irrespective of the linguistic context, while reference of a pronoun like he can only be determined from the context of the utterance, i.e., the man last mentioned, the individual pointed to by the speaker, etc."
  • (Hadumod Bussmann, Gregory Trauth, and Kerstin Kazzazi, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

Nominal Phrases

  • "The nominal phrase has a noun or pronoun as its headword. I prefer the term 'nominal' phrase to 'noun' phrase for several reasons. Firstly, the headword may be a pronoun as well as a noun, that is to say, it may be a nominal word, e.g.
They are on holiday.
This is the way.
Hers is the blue cagoule.
Six have accepted.
Many haven't proper footwear.
  • Secondly, the use of 'nominal' then marks a commonality of terminology across units of word, phrase and clause rank, and it will be seen further that a nominal phrase shares a commonality of function with a nominal unit of clause rank. . . .
  • "Nominal phrases with noun headwords may typically be preceded and modified (pre headword modification or premodification) or determined by an article, a genitive phrase, a pronoun, an adjective (adjectival phrase) or another noun (nominal phrase), and they may be followed and qualified (post headword modification or postmodification) by a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause, or in certain cases an adjective or nominal phrase, e.g.
this Russian course
my most enjoyable climb
her sister's new bicycle
all our recent holidays
a voice from the past
the song that Jill sang
the secretary general
Jones the butcher
  • Nominal phrases with pronoun headwords are often assumed to be single word phrases and not to include other words, e.g.
She is on holiday.
This is the way.
Hers is the blue cagoule.
Jane has hurt herself.
  • But this is not inevitably so, particularly where the headword is one or an indefinite pronoun, e.g. anybody, someone, or where a numeral or quantifier is involved . . .."

(G. David Morley, Syntax in Functional Grammar: An Introduction to Lexicogrammar in Systemic  Linguistics. Continuum, 2000)

 "Nonreferential" Nominals

  • "[Some] nominals [are] described as being 'nonreferential.' The term is not very satisfactory, however, for while such nominals do lack referents in the world, they nonetheless establish referents at the discourse level. We can see this in (6), where they serve as antecedents for pronouns referring back to them:
    (6a) If she had a Porsche she would drive it to church.
    (6b) A hub lies at the center of the wheel it is a part of.
    (6c) Every hobbit who owns a unicorn believes he takes good care of it.
    (6d) I don't have any pets so I don't have to feed them.
    • From a linguistic standpoint these nominals are indeed referential, as they single out a grounded instance of a type as their referent. Their special property is that they profile a virtual instance rather than an actual one."

    (Ronald W. Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008)

    Pronunciation: NOM-e-nel