Noun Phrase

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Noun Phrase? (with Examples)

A noun phrase is a group of two or more words headed by a noun that includes modifiers. In these examples of noun phrases, the noun is shaded. All the other words are modifiers.
  • the dog
  • (In this example, "the" is a modifier.)
  • a cat
  • (Here, "a" is a modifier.)
  • a group of them
  • ("A" and "of them" are modifiers.)
  • the man with her
  • ("The" and "with her" are modifiers.)
noun phrase example
A noun phrase plays the role of a noun. In a noun phrase, the modifiers can come before or after the noun.

Note: A noun phrase can also be headed by a pronoun. For example:
  • the dog with fleas
  • (This is a noun phrase headed by a noun.)
  • the one with fleas
  • (This is a noun phrase headed by a pronoun.)

Examples of Noun Phrases

In normal writing, nouns nearly always feature in noun phrases. It is rare to find a noun functioning by itself (i.e., without any modifiers) in a sentence.
  • Man proposes, but God disposes. (German canon Thomas Kempis)
  • (This example features two nouns without any modifiers. That's rare. In other words, there are no noun phrases in this example.)
In real life, it is far more common for nouns to feature in noun phrases, i..e, to be accompanied by modifiers. Here is a list of noun phrases. In this list, every noun phrase consists of a head noun (highlighted) and at least one modifier.
  • People: the soldier, my cousin, dopey Alan, the lawyer with the big nose
  • Animals: that aardvark, one rat, a shark, funny Mickey
  • Places: the house in the corner, inner London, dirty factory, no shelter
  • Things: this table, our London Bridge, the sharp chisel, that nitrogen, last month, an inch, her cooking
  • Ideas: utter confusion, some kindness, your faith, the Theory of Relativity, a joy
So, a noun with any sort of modifier (even it's just "a" or "the") is a noun phrase.

The Function of Noun Phrases

Like any noun, a noun phrase can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. In each example below, the noun phrase is in bold and the head noun is highlighted.
  • Singing in the bath relaxes me.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is the subject of the verb "relaxes.")
  • I know the back streets.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is the direct object of the verb "know.")
  • She was the devil in disguise.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is a subject complement following the linking verb "was.")
As most nouns feature in noun phrases, let's look quickly at the definition for "phrase":

Definition of "Phrase"

A phrase has at least two words and functions as one part of speech.
It follows therefore that a noun phrase functions as a noun in a sentence. We can test this because we know that a noun can be replaced by a pronoun (e.g., he, she, it, them). Looking at the examples above, we can replace each noun phrase with a pronoun.
  • It relaxes me.
  • I know them.
  • She was him.
Here are some real-life examples of noun phrases as subjects, objects, and complements:
  • This man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth. (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on Mikhail Gorbachev)
  • ("This man" is the subject of the verb "has." The phrase "a nice smile" is the direct object of "has." The noun phrase "iron teeth" is the direct object of the verb "got." Here's the "pronoun test": He has one, but he's got them.)
  • I never learned from a man who agreed with me. (Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein)
  • (The noun phrase "a man who agreed with me" is the object of the preposition "from." Here's the "pronoun test": I never learned from him.)
  • Every man of courage is a man of his word. (French dramatist Pierre Corneille)
  • ("Every man of courage" is the subject of the verb "is." The noun phrase "a man of his word" is a subject complement following the linking verb "is." Here's the "pronoun test": He is one.)
It can get complicated. It's not unusual for nouns and noun phrases to be embedded within noun phrases. Looking at the last example, "courage" and "word" are both nouns, but they are not the head nouns of the phrases. They are both objects of the preposition "of," sitting in prepositional phrases that modify the head nouns. Read more about prepositional phrases.

More Examples of Noun Phrases

Noun phrases are extremely common. Remember that a noun with any sort of modifier (including just a number or an article) is a noun phrase. Here are some more examples of noun phrases:
  • The best defense against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off. (Anon)
  • (In this example, there is a noun phrase within a noun phrase. The noun phrase "the atom bomb" is the object of the preposition "against." The prepositional phrase "against the atom bomb" modifies "defense.")
  • I don't have a bank account, because I don't know my mother's maiden name. (Paula Poundstone)
  • (In this example, both noun phrases are direct objects.)
  • The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it. (Dudley Moore, 1935-2002)
  • (In this example, the first noun phrase is the subject, and the second is a subject complement.)
  • Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former. (Physicist Albert Einstein, 1879-1955)
The last thing to say about noun phrases is that they can be headed by pronouns as well as nouns, and they can be quite long.
  • Anybody who wants the presidency so much that he'll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. (Journalist David Broder)
  • (Here, "anybody" is a pronoun. The rest of the noun phrase is an adjective clause modifying the head "noun." Here's the "pronoun test": He is not to be trusted with the office.)
Here is a video summarizing this lesson on noun phrases.
Most native English speakers can form noun phrases without giving the grammar a second thought. So, if the truth be told, understanding how they function isn't particularly useful unless you're required to teach them or to compare them with similar structures in a foreign language you're learning.

That said though, there is a common issue associated with noun phrases.

When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, ensure subject-verb agreement with the head noun.

  • The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets give us the term "the full nine yards." wrong cross
  • (The head noun in this noun phrase is "belt." All the other words in the noun phrase are modifiers. As "belt" is singular, the verb "give" is wrong. It should be "gives.")
  • The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets gives us the term "the full nine yards." correct tick
Do not be tricked into agreeing the verb with the nearest noun (here, "bullets"). When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, the head noun governs the verb. Read more about subject-verb agreement.

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