What Does 'Nominal' Mean in English Grammar?

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. (Jed Share/Getty Images)

In English grammar, the term nominal refers to a noun or noun phrase or to 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 act just like nouns in a sentence. They can be the subject of the sentence, the object of a sentence, or the predicate nominative, which follows a linking verb and explains what the subject is.

But we'll get to that.

Author Geoffrey Leech illustrates the concept this way: "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).

Nominal Phrases and Headwords

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, like you would think from just looking at the term. A nominal phrase can even be a single word, such as in sentences like "They are on vacation" or "Five are going on the trip."

Author G. David Morley explains the nitty-gritty details further:

"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

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)

For example, consider the sentence "Anybody crazy enough to dye his or her hair blue." The whole thing would be the nominal phrase starting with an indefinite pronoun. "Six wild horses" could illustrate a phrase using a number, and a quantifier phrase could be something like, "many green marbles."

To illustrate how nominal phrases can function in a sentence just like nouns, let's look at the attorney general as a noun phrase:

  • 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.)

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 as a 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. Additional examples:

  • 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.")

Nominalization

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 not tough to create nouns (nominals) in English from other words, as it is a malleable language. 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