Noun Phrases: Definition, Purpose, and Use

definition of "noun phrase" with two example sentences restated from the article
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    ginger cat illustration with noun phrase definition and example sentences
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Noun phrases are like those kids in cartoons who stand on each other’s shoulders and hide under a trench coat. All stacked up like that, they look like an adult — but they’re really just a bunch of kids pretending to be an adult. Noun phrases work the same way. They look and act like nouns, but really, they’re just a combination of words pretending to be a noun.

What Is a Noun Phrase?

A noun phrase is a group of words that functions like a noun. Also known as nominals, noun phrases act as subjects or objects in a sentence. Noun phrases can’t function as a complete sentence — they don’t have a verb.

Examples of noun phrases include:

  • a bird
  • the little boy
  • man of his word
  • lawyer with a kind smile
  • that happy puppy
  • running around the neighborhood
  • my green gym socks
  • the building on the corner
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Types of Noun Phrases

All noun phrases include nouns (or words that function as nouns). But there are lots of other parts of a noun phrase that provide more information to a reader.

Noun Phrase Examples With Premodifiers

Noun phrases can include premodifiers, which are describing words that come before a noun. Premodifiers can include articles (such as the and an) and adjectives (such as intelligent or blue).

  • An elephant raised its trunk at me. (Article an modifies elephant)
  • Can you hand me a sharp pencil? (Article a and adjective sharp modify pencil)
  • You’re such an understanding friend. (Article a and adjective understanding modify friend)

Other types of determiners can be premodifiers, including possessive determiners (my, our, his), demonstratives (this, those, these), and quantifiers (most, five, some).

  • Her cousin lives down the street. (Possessive determiner her modifies cousin)
  • That dog growled at me. (Demonstrative that modifies dog)
  • Several people witnessed the aliens. (Quantifier several modifies people)
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Noun Phrase Examples With Postmodifiers

Postmodifiers are describing words that come after a noun. In a noun phrase, these modifiers may be different types of phrases, including prepositional phrases and participial phrases

  • People with rude manners upset me. (Prepositional phrase with rude manners modifies people)
  • Did you see helicopters following the car chase? (Participial phrase following the car chase modifies helicopters)

Adjective clauses and infinitive phrases can also provide more information about a noun in a sentence.

  • Barry, who graduated first in his class, is a successful doctor. (Adjective clause who graduated first in his class modifies Barry)
  • Our decision to get married changed our lives forever. (Infinitive phrase to get married modifies our decision)
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Examples of Gerunds in Noun Phrases

Gerunds, which are -ing words functioning as nouns, can also head up noun phrases. These phrases are also known as gerund phrases, but they always function as nouns.

  • Playing with my kids is my favorite Saturday activity. 
  • Spinning in circles can make you dizzy.
  • Have you tried swimming across the river?

How To Use a Noun Phrase in a Sentence

No matter which type of noun phrase you want to use, you’ll have to find the right spot for it in a sentence. (Hint: They go anywhere a noun can go.)

Examples of a Noun Phrase as a Subject

When you start a sentence with a noun phrase, and that noun phrase performs the action in the sentence, it’s functioning as the subject of the sentence.

  • The spotted puppy jumped around happily.
  • My youngest sister went to nursing school.
  • Four angry bears stormed down the mountain.
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Examples of a Noun Phrase as an Object

Noun phrases can also function as the object in a sentence when they receive the action from the subject.

  • At the zoo, I saw a striped zebra.
  • You shouldn’t eat that uncooked chicken.
  • Noelle sipped a warm cup of coffee.

Noun Phrase as the Object of a Preposition

When the noun phrase follows a preposition, it’s functioning as the object of the preposition.

  • Mary lives in a busy household.
  • Jose drives to an awful job every morning.
  • We live near a small grocery store.

Noun Phrase as an Absolute Phrase to a Subject

You can also use the noun phrase as an absolute phrase to modify the subject of a sentence, or the entire sentence itself.

  • Her face red with embarrassment, she took her seat beside the man she had tripped.
  • They walked into the sunset, their laughter carrying on the breeze.
  • My dog trotted behind me, drool spilling from his panting tongue.
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Noun Phrase vs. Noun Clause

Telling the difference between a noun phrase and a noun clause can be tricky, especially if the noun phrase contains an adjective clause.

But noun clauses replace nouns in a sentence, while adjective clauses are part of a noun phrase that describe the noun in a sentence. 

Noun clauses also begin with relative pronouns (who, whom, that, which, whose), while noun phrases usually begin with the noun or pronoun that they’re modifying.

  • The dog that got sick feels better. (Noun phrase; starts with the dog)
  • I heard that the dog feels better. (Noun clause; starts with that)
  • Steven, who should know better, made a huge mess in the microwave. (Noun phrase; starts with Steven)
  • We don’t know who made the mess in the microwave. (Noun clause; starts with who)

Noun Phrase Quiz

Can you sniff out the noun phrases in these sentences? There may be more than one in each — and some may be noun clauses instead — so search carefully.

  1. We bought an amazing new doghouse for our old dog.
  2. Do you understand what I’m talking about?
  3. Henry ordered nachos with extra cheese and green chiles.
  4. Many hamster owners prefer custom cages.
  5. Did you thank whoever sent you that birthday card?
  6. I’m still looking for my boss’s favorite stapler.
  7. A bright blue sky greeted us.
  8. The boy doing cartwheels in the classroom is my little brother.

Answer Key for Noun Phrase Quiz

Could you find them all, or did those tricky noun clauses throw you off?

  1. We bought an amazing new doghouse.
  2. Do you understand what I’m talking about? (None — what I’m talking about is a noun clause)
  3. Henry ordered nachos with extra cheese and green chiles. (Extra cheese and green chiles are also noun phrases by themselves)
  4. Many hamster owners prefer custom cages.
  5. Did you thank whoever sent you that birthday card? (None — whoever sent you that birthday card is a noun clause)
  6. I’m still looking for my boss’s favorite stapler. 
  7. A bright blue sky greeted us.
  8. The boy doing cartwheels in the classroom is my little brother.