Learn About Noun Phrases and Get Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

noun phrase
A page on nouns from The First Grammar Book for Children (W. Walker & Sons, 1900). (Culture Club/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a noun phrase ​(also knows as np) is word group with a noun or pronoun as its head.

The simplest noun phrase consists of a single noun, as in the sentence "Bells were ringing." The head of a noun phrase can be accompanied by modifiers, determiners (such as the, a, her), and/or complements, as in "The cheerful bells of the church were ringing."

A noun phrase (often abbreviated as NP) most commonly functions as a subject, object, or complement.

Examples and Observations of Noun Phrases

  • "Panting, Harry fell forwards over the hydrangea bush, straightened up and stared around." (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury, 2003)
  • "The home of the Little family was a pleasant place near a park in New York City." (E.B. White, Stuart Little. Harper, 1945)
  • "When the story was finished, I read it to my teacher, and I recall now vividly the pleasure I felt in the more beautiful passages." (Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 1903)
  • "I would hold my laugh, bite my tongue, grit my teeth, and very seriously erase even the touch of a smile from my face." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "McSorley's bar is short, accommodating approximately ten elbows, and is shored up with iron pipes."(Joseph Mitchell, "The Old House at Home," 1940)
  • "The wells and water table had been polluted by chemical pesticides and fertilizers that leached into the earth and were washed by rain into the creeks, where the stunned fish were scavenged by the ospreys." (Peter Matthiessen, Men's Lives, 1986)
  • "The men in the class--there were a few older students, veterans--listened with good-natured interest, and the girls gazed at the instructor with rosy-faced, shy affection." (Bernard Malamud, A New Life, 1961)

Identifying Noun Phrases

  • "Noun phrases . . . can be replaced by pronouns. (The noun phrases in the following example are in [italics].)
    E.g. My father gave this book to my mother.
    ( He gave it to her.)"
    (Geoffrey Leech, Benita Cruickshank, and Roz Ivanic, An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2001)
  • "The principle of substitution is essential in grammatical analysis. We cannot possibly hope to characterize all of the possible noun phrases of English on the basis of form. Just thinking about the possible structures that can serve as subjects of sentences should convince you that an exhaustive catalog of noun phrases would be, if at all possible, incredibly long and complex. Consider, as a single example, the subject of the preceding sentence: Just thinking about the possible structures that can serve as subjects of sentences. In form, this string of words is nothing like the prototypical noun phrases described above, yet a pronoun can substitute for it (It should convince you), and it functions quite naturally in a noun phrase slot." (Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 4th ed. Longman, 2004)

Noun Phrases and Modifiers

  • "More than one determiner can introduce a noun phrase; for example, all and our in [2]:
    [2] In the initial sorties all our aircraft have returned safely [S2B-008-15]
    " . . . A noun head may also have more than one postmodifier. Two postmodifiers are exhibited in [3]:
    [3] [. . .] I think it is a pity that LB is the only major corporation I have worked for where this has been a problem. [W1B-020-24]
    The noun head is corporation and the two postmodifiers are I have worked for and where this has been a problem. The second postmodifier modifies the whole of the preceding noun phrase, including the first postmodifier, since clearly the writer does not want to generalize by extending the reference to major corporations where he has not worked. On the other hand, the two postmodifiers in [4] modify the head separately:
    [4] [ . . .] we could not trace the invoice dated 22nd March 1990 for £43.13. [W1B-021-37]
    We could reverse the order of the postmodifiers without changing the meaning."
    (Sidney Greenbaum, Oxford English Grammar. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)

    Simple and Complicated Noun Phrases

    • "A noun phrase . . . is a unit that can have very simple or very complicated internal structure:
      (3a) Simple noun phrase: the dog
      (3b) Complicated noun phrase: the big black dog that always barks at me as I try vainly to sneak past the junkyard on my way home from my piano lesson
      The phrase in 3b has quite a bit of internal complexity, and therefore requires a lot of mental processing. However, once it is processed, it can enter into larger structures as easily (well, almost as easily) as simple structures such as (3a). They are both just noun phrases as far as the structure of the larger clause is concerned."
      (Thomas E. Payne, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

    Noun-Noun Phrases

    • "This kind of noun phrase can cause problems for EAL [English as an additional language] writers, in our experience. An example of a noun-noun phrase is 'resource availability.' This phrase means 'availability of resources.' To shorten phrases like this, it is very common in scientific English for the second part (of resources) to be moved in front of the headword (availability). When this happens, the part that moves is always written in its singular form (resource) and the preposition is omitted. (It is rare to find a possessive form with an apostrophe in such cases in science writing.)"
      (Margaret Cargill and Patrick O'Connor, Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy and Steps. Wiley Blackwell, 2009)

      Style Advice: Noun Phrases in Technical Writing and Global English

      • "Most forms of controlled English suggest revising noun phrases that are more than three words long. However, even a two- or three-word noun phrase can be unclear or ambiguous. For example, in the following sentences, someone who is not familiar with the subject matter cannot fully understand the two-word noun phrases, because each individual word has multiple possible meanings:
        - If you haven't imported a filter, the default is a unity gain.
        - The tracking loop mitigates the effects of multi-path interference on code-phase errors.
        On the other hand, some longer noun phrases are easy to comprehend--especially if part of the noun phrase is a proper noun. As long as the reader understands the two-word noun phrase dialog box, the four-word noun phrase in the following sentence is comprehensible:
        In the Advanced Options dialog box, use the arrows to adjust the percentage.
        " . . . Clearly it is important to keep noun phrases as short as possible in English. But even the short ones often need to be explained or defined in order for translators to be sure about their meanings."
        (John R. Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. SAS, 2008)