Prepositional phrases have a variety of functions. They can modify a noun, as in "the child with a runny nose," or verbs, as in "she came from Panama." When PPs modify verbs, they have functions that can often be filled by adverb phrases, or occasionally by other phrase types as well. Constituents that function in this role are sometimes called adverbials, because these constituents answer adverb-like questions such as when, where, how, or why. Similarly, PPs that modify nouns are sometimes called adjectivals. But be careful with these terms. They do not imply that the PPs actually become adverbs or adjectives. Remember that adjective and adverb are categories for words, not for phrases. The terms adverbial and adjectival simply tell you what sort of constituent the phrase modifies. Because this information can also be conveyed by a tree diagram, we won't use these particular terms much, but you should be aware of them, since other works on English grammar use them frequently.
Noun phrases don't just contain nouns and determinatives, of course. They also contain elements such as adjectives.

(13) these diligent workers

In (13) the adjective diligent is a modifier of the head noun workers. Modifier is a general term for optional elements in a phrase that add descriptive information about the head word. We have already seen some modifiers in the verb phrase: the adjuncts. The noun phrase also resembles the verb phrase in that it can contain contain complements. Distinguishing modifiers from complements in noun phrases, however, is much trickier than distinguishing them in verb phrases, and we will not do so in this course. Instead, we will content ourselves with simply lumping noun-phrase modifiers and complements into the broader category of dependent.

Another fairly common type of NP is one containing a genitive:

(7) Garth's reply

This NP looks almost the same as the NPs above, but Garth is a proper noun, not a determiner. And yet Garth seems to occupy the same "slot" in the noun phrase. Notice that we can use either a determiner or the proper noun, but not both:

(7a) the reply
(7b) *the Garth's reply
(7c) *Garth's the reply

At this point, you may be ready to assume that Garth’s actually is a determiner, but that conclusion leads to some unfortunate consequences. First, we would have to say that any noun could change its part of speech simply by adding the genitive inflection. In other words, the category of determiner, which we have already described as containing a small number of words that have a principally grammatical function becomes an open-ended set. Further, this slot isn't just occupied by genitive nouns. It can be occupied by entire phrases:

As the preceding discussion shows, some nouns can appear alone in a noun phrase, without a determiner or any other word. These nouns include many proper nouns, mass nouns, plural count nouns, and pronouns. (Remember, we are treating pronouns as a subtype of nouns.) Diagrams of such phrases are about as simple as they come:

simple NP diagrams[1]

Only a little more complex is the case of a noun appearing with a determiner. Determiners are extremely common in noun phrases. You will encounter a great many noun phrases that contain them. If you are still unclear about the category of determiner, you may want to review the relevant section of chapter 3 at this point

Determiners are words that appear before nouns and specify ideas such as definiteness, quantity. Traditional grammar books often lump determiners in with adjectives and pronouns, but we will treat them as a primary category. Determiners play an important role in noun phrases. For now we merely list the most common determiners. We will return to them in more detail when we look at NP structure.


The definite article, the, is used to introduce something that can be identified uniquely within the context of the utterance or of general knowledge. For that reason, the is typically used for "old" information. If I say "bring the chair," I assume you already know which chair I'm talking about.

In the previous chapter, we examined some of the basics of sentence structure. Over the next few chapters, we will deepen our understanding by studying how the most important phrase types are structured. Because every sentence has a predicate, and every predicate is a verb phrase, every sentence is ultimately structured around a verb. We will therefore begin with verb phrases.


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