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Grammatical Functions of English Nouns and Noun Phrases

Grammatical Functions of English Nouns and Noun Phrases

Noun phrases including nouns and pronouns perform eleven main grammatical functions within sentences in the English language. The eleven functions of nouns and noun phrases are:

Nouns are traditionally defined as “persons, places, things, and ideas.” Noun phrases are defined as phrases that consist of a noun or pronoun and any number of constituents including adjectives, determiners, prepositional phrases, verb phrases, and adjective clauses.

Noun Phrase Head

The first grammatical function that nouns perform is the noun phrase head. A noun phrase consists of a noun including a pronoun plus any determiners, modifiers, and complements. For example, the following italicized nouns function as noun phrase heads:

  • the big blue ball
  • someone to love
  • an old woman who lived in a shoe

Subjects

The second grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the subject. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as subjects:

  • The baby cried.
  • Dogs and cats make excellent pets.
  • I will have extensively studied English grammar.

Subject Complements

The third grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the subject complement. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular, or linking, verb and describes the subject of a clause. The terms predicate nominative and predicate noun are also used for noun phrases that function as subject complements. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as predicate nominatives:

  • My grandfather is a farmer.
  • Our favorite pets are dogs with short hair.
  • The woman whom you are looking for is she.

Direct Objects

The fourth grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the direct object. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question “who?” or “what?” receives the action of the verb. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as direct objects:

  • The children ate all the cookies.
  • My professor recommended an extremely captivating book.
  • The woman has always hated mice and rats.

Object Complements

The fifth grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the object complement. Object complements are defined as nouns, pronouns, noun phrases, adjectives, and adjective phrases that directly follow and modify the direct object. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as object complements:

  • We consider our puppy our baby.
  • My aunt calls my uncle sweetheart.
  • America recently elected Barack Obama president.

Indirect Objects

The sixth grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the indirect object. An indirect object is word, phrase, or clause that indicates to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as indirect objects:

  • My husband bought me flowers.
  • The child drew his mother a picture.
  • The salesman sold the company suffering from the scandal new computers.

Prepositional Complements

The seventh grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the prepositional complement. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows a preposition and completes the meaning of the prepositional phrase. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as prepositional complements:

  • My husband bought flowers for me.
  • The students studied during their spring break.
  • Because of the lengthy delay, we missed our flight.

Noun Phrase Modifiers

The eighth grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the noun phrase modifier. A noun phrase modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies or describes a noun including a pronoun or a noun phrase. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as noun phrase modifiers:

  • The child actor won an award.
  • The carpenter fixed the broken table leg.
  • We reserved twenty hotel rooms.

Determinatives

The ninth grammatical function that noun phrases can perform is the determinative. Determinatives provide information such as familiarity, location, quantity, and number. Possessive nouns — which are a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase and the possessive clitic (apostrophe s or s apostrophe) — function as determinatives. Possessive nouns indicate possession of or some other relationship to another noun or noun phrase. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as possessive modifiers:

  • My brother’s apartment is small.
  • I found everyone’s reports informative.
  • The man who stole my purse’s car has been towed.

Appositives

The tenth grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the appositive. An appositive is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies or explains another noun phrase. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as appositives:

  • My grandfather, the farmer, bought more farm land.
  • The teacher, my uncle, assigns a lot of homework.
  • The musician Stevie Nicks is a singer in the band Fleetwood Mac.

Adjunct Adverbials

The eleventh grammatical function that noun phrases perform is the adjunct adverbial. An adjunct adverbial is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. For example, the following italicized noun phrases function as adjunct adverbials:

  • Today the children woke up early.
  • Yesterday the children slept in late.
  • We decided to go home.

The eleven functions of noun phrases are noun phrase head, subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, prepositional complement, noun phrase modifier, determinative, appositive, and adjunct adverbial.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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