The presence of a noun phrase after a preposition is so common that traditional grammar books often state that a preposition must always be followed by a noun phrase. Certain exceptions, however, make it clear that we cannot accept that assertion.

First, prepositions will sometimes have other prepositional phrases as complements:

(10) The plane emerged from behind the cloud.

From and behind are both prepositions. But notice that from behind the cloud forms a single constituent. You can move it to the front of a cleft sentence:

(10a) From behind the cloud is where the plane emerged.

Compare the following two sentences:

(2) Ken looked up her number.
(3) Ken looked up her dress.

A little scrutiny will show that up does not have the same function in both sentences. For example, while we can create a cleft sentence with up her dress, we can't do the same thing with up her number:

(2a) *Up her number is what Ken looked.
(3a) Up her dress is where Ken looked.

Also, we can move up to the end of the first sentence, but not the second:

(2b) Ken looked her number up.
(3b) *Ken looked her dress up.

Not everything that looks like a preposition actually behaves like one. For example, the word to followed by a verb phrase forms an infinitive phrase. These infinitive phrases, which we will examine more closely in a later chapter, are verb phrases, not prepositional phrases. We can see this if we contrast infinitive to with the preposition. (1a) My kids always want [to go] [to Disneyland]. In this sentence, the verb want has two constituents that begin with to, but the first is followed by the verb go, and the second by an NP. There are several ways in which the first instance of to behaves very differently from the second.
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.
Some students find the concept of nominals to be confusing. Remember that nominals are simply another constituent of grammar. Like other constituents such as phrases and clauses, they function as units. Like phrases, nominals also have heads. Remember that head words are important because their features play a role in how the entire phrase functions within the sentence. That's why we name the phrase after the category of its head word. One way to think of this is that the properties of the word carry over to the phrase. Looking at how this works in a tree diagram, we can think of the properties of the head word as percolating up from the individual word to the phrase. The following diagram represents this "percolation" by showing the edges between the head words and their parent nodes as arrows.[1]
Let us pause a moment to take stock of our NP structure. We've only looked at a few relatively simple NPs, but already we have a number of different cases:

1.One-noun NPs, e.g., John, students,
2.Determinative + N, e.g., that book, Alison’s divorce,
3.Determinative + modifier + N, e.g., the unpleasant boy,
4.Determinative + N + modifier, e.g., the dog on the sofa.

Is there any general pattern here? We can easily formulate a general principle for cases 3 and 4 if we say that dependents other than determinatives combine to form nominals, whether those dependents appear before or after the head noun, and determinatives combine with nominals to form NPs.

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


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