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Phrases: Defininf phrase, basic structure of a phrase, more phrase types, Noun phrase


10 Introduces phrases

 

We have now completed the first level of grammatical analysis, in which we looked at words individually and classified them according to certain criteria. This classification is important because, as we'll see, it forms the basis of the next level of analysis, in which we consider units which may be larger than individual words, but are smaller than sentences. In this section we will be looking at PHRASES. 

10.1 Defining a Phrase 

When we looked at nouns and pronouns, we said that a pronoun can sometimes replace a noun in a sentence. One of the examples we used was this: 

[Children] should watch less television

~[They] should watch less television 

Here it is certainly true that the pronoun they replaces the noun children. But consider: 

[The children] should watch less television

~[They] should watch less television 

In this example, they does not replace children. Instead, it replaces the children, which is a unit consisting of a determiner and a noun. We refer to this unit as a NOUN PHRASE (NP), and we define it as any unit in which the central element is a noun. Here is another example: 

I like [the title of your book]

~I like [it

In this case, the pronoun it replaces not just a noun but a five-word noun phrase, the title of your book. So instead of saying that pronouns can replace nouns, it is more accurate to say that they can replace noun phrases

We refer to the central element in a phrase as the HEAD of the phrase. In the noun phrase the children, the Head is children. In the noun phrase the title of your book, the Head is title

Noun phrases do not have to contain strings of words. In fact, they can contain just one word, such as the word children in children should watch less television. This is also a phrase, though it contains only a Head. At the level of word class, of course, we would call children a plural, common noun. But in a phrase-level analysis, we call children on its own a noun phrase. This is not simply a matter of terminology -- we call it a noun phrase because it can be expanded to form longer strings which are more clearly noun phrases.

 

From now on in the Internet Grammar, we will be using this phrase-level terminology. Furthermore, we will delimit phrases by bracketing them, as we have done in the examples above.

10.2 The Basic Structure of a Phrase

Phrases consist minimally of a Head. This means that in a one-word phrase like [children], the Head is children. In longer phrases, a string of elements may appear before the Head:

[the small children]

For now, we will refer to this string simply as the pre-Head string.

A string of elements may also appear after the Head, and we will call this the post-Head string:

[the small children in class 5]

So we have a basic three-part structure:

 

pre-Head string

Head

post-Head string

[the small

children

in class 5]

 

 

Of these three parts, only the Head is obligatory. It is the only part which cannot be omitted from the phrase. To illustrate this, let's omit each part in turn:

 

pre-Head string

Head

post-Head string

[--

children

in class 5]

*[the small

--

in class 5]

[the small

children

--]

 

 

Pre-Head and post-Head strings can be omitted, while leaving a complete noun phrase. We can even omit the pre- and post-Head strings at the same time, leaving only the Head:

 

pre-Head string

Head

post-Head string

[--

children

--]

 

This is still a complete noun phrase.

However, when the Head is omitted, we're left with an incomplete phrase (*the small in class five). This provides a useful method of identifying the Head of a phrase. In general, the Head is the only obligatory part of a phrase.

10.3 More Phrase Types

Just as a noun functions as the Head of a noun phrase, a verb functions as the Head of a verb phrase, and an adjective functions as the Head of an adjective phrase, and so on. We recognise five phrase types in all: 

 

Phrase Type

Head

Example

Noun Phrase

Noun

[the children in class 5]

Verb Phrase

Verb

[play the piano]

Adjective Phrase

Adjective

[delighted to meet you]

Adverb Phrase

Adverb

[very quickly]

Prepositional Phrase

Preposition

[in the garden]

 

 

For convenience, we will use the following abbreviations for the phrase types:

 

Phrase Type

Abbreviation

Noun Phrase

NP

Verb Phrase

VP

Adjective Phrase

AP

Adverb Phrase

AdvP

Prepositional Phrase

PP

 

 

Using these abbreviations, we can now label phrases as well as bracket them. We do this by putting the appropriate label inside the opening bracket:

[NP the small children in class 5]

Now we will say a little more about each of the five phrase types.

10.4 Noun Phrase (NP)

As we've seen, a noun phrase has a noun as its Head. Determiners and adjective phrases usually constitute the pre-Head string:

[NP the children]
[NP happy children]
[NP the happy children]

In theory at least, the post-Head string in an NP can be indefinitely long:

[NP the dog that chased the cat that killed the mouse that ate the cheese that was made from the milk that came from the cow that...]

Fortunately, they are rarely as long as this in real use.

The Head of an NP does not have to be a common or a proper noun. Recall that pronouns are a subclass of nouns. This means that pronouns, too, can function as the Head of an NP:

[NP I] like coffee
The waitress gave [NP me] the wrong dessert
[NP This] is my car

If the Head is a pronoun, the NP will generally consist of the Head only. This is because pronouns do not take determiners or adjectives, so there will be no pre-Head string. However, with some pronouns, there may be a post-Head string:

[NP Those who arrive late] cannot be admitted until the interval

Similarly, numerals, as a subclass of nouns, can be the Head of an NP:

[NP Two of my guests] have arrived
[NP The first to arrive] was John 


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