Nominal: Definition and Examples in Grammar

These nouns and noun phrases function as a noun but provide more depth

cup of coffee next to a guitar
A nominal is a word or phrase (like guitar, table, or cup of coffee) that functions like a noun phrase.

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In English grammar, the term nominal is a category that describes the usage of parts of speech in a sentence. Specifically, the nominal definition is that it's a noun, noun phrase, or any word or word group that functions as a noun. It is also known as a substantive. The term comes from the Latin, meaning "name." Nominals can be the subject of a sentence, the object of a sentence, or the predicate nominative, which follows a linking verb and explains what the subject is. Nominals are used to give more specifics than a simple noun.

Key Takeaways: Nominal

  • Nominal is a grammatical category for words or groups of words that function as nouns in a sentence.
  • Nominals can do whatever nouns can. They can be a subject, an object, or a predicate nominative.
  • Nominal groups give more specifics about a noun.
  • Nominal groups can contain other parts of speech such as prepositions, articles, adjectives, and others.

What Is a Nominal?

As a grammatical category, nominal describes words or groups of words that function together as a noun. The words in a nominal grouping give more detail about the noun (the headword), making it specific. Nominal phrases and clauses can include other parts of speech such as articles, prepositions, and adjectives.

"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," says Author Geoffrey Leech in "A Glossary of Grammar." In this phase, "nice cup of tea" is a nominal; it provides more description than simply saying "cup." Using a nominal gives the reader a more complete sense about what the writer is trying to convey.

Nominal Phrases

When constructing a nominal phrase, the headword for the phrase is a noun or pronoun, though it may not always be at the front of the phrase, as you would think from just looking at the term. Headwords can have articles, pronouns, adjectives, or even other phrases before them, and they may be followed by prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and more.

Author G. David Morley gives these examples of nominal phrases. The headwords are in italics.

  • This Russian course
  • My most enjoyable climb
  • Her sister's new bicycle
  • All of our recent holidays
  • A voice from the past
  • The song that Jill sang
  • The secretary general

In all of these examples, the nominal gives more context to the noun. It's not just a course; it's this Russian course. It's more than just a climb; it was my most enjoyable climb. And, it's much more than just a bicycle; it's her sister's new bicycle.

To illustrate how nominals can function in a sentence just like nouns, here are ways to use "the attorney general" as a nominal phrase in different parts of the sentence:

  • The attorney general is running for reelection. (It's the subject.)
  • We took our concerns to the attorney general. (It's the indirect object.)
  • A bulletproof limo took the attorney general to the conference. (It's the direct object.)
  • The staff members went to lunch with the attorney general. (It's the object of a preposition.)

Authors have made great use of nominal phrases in literature. For example, using a version of the nominal phrase from the last section, authors Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin authored a book called "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace — One School at a Time." The book is about one man's quest to promote peace by sharing "three cups of tea" (together with thoughts of friendship and peace) with various individuals in Pakistan. In this title, "Three Cups of Tea" is the nominal phrase; it's not just a cup, but three cups of tea that Mortenson shared with others.

Nominal Clauses

Nominal clauses contain a verb and often begin with words such as what (or other wh- words) or that. These are called that- clauses and wh- clauses or relative clauses. Consider, for example, the sentence "He can go wherever he wants." The clause starts with a wh- word, contains a verb, and functions, taken whole, as a noun. You can tell it functions as a noun because you could replace it with a noun or a pronoun. For example, you could say, "He can go home," "He can go to Paris," or "He can go there." 

Because the wh- clause doesn't have a headword, it's called a free (nominal) relative clause

Nominal clauses are dependent clauses. They cannot stand alone as a sentence but do contain a verb.

  • I believe that grammar is easier than it seems. (The noun clause acts as an object, as in "I believe it.")
  • What I had for lunch was delicious. (The noun clause acts as a subject, as in "The soup was delicious.")
  • Beth is whom I was referring to. (The clause acts in this sentence as a predicate nominative. First, it's a wh- clause because it has a subject and a verb. Next, it follows a linking verb. Third, it fills in information about the subject, as in "Beth is she" or "She is Beth.")


The act of creating a nominal from a verb, adjective, or other words (even another noun) is known as nominalization. For example, take blogosphere. It's a new noun created from another plus the addition of a suffix. It's easy to create nouns (nominals) in English from other words. Even just adding -ing to a verb to make a gerund is nominalization, such as firing from fire. Or adding a suffix to an adjective, such as adding -ness to lovely to make loveliness