October 20, 2020

Three Determiners That Tell You a Group of Words is Most Likely a Noun Phrase

Reading Time: 4 minutes


It is fairly easy to know which group of words qualifies to be given the grammatical name of a noun phrase if you know all the tricks involved.

The purpose of this tutorial is to show you one of the most important ways to identify a noun phrase in any English sentence. The secret words you are about to see are often seen at the beginning of noun phrases. So any time you see these noun phrase markers introducing a group of words, your grammar instincts should start flashing the noun-phrase green light.

Because you may be dealing with a noun phrase the moment you see these secret words at the beginning of a specified group of words in a sentence or passage.

The secret words I’m talking about are not secret in the real sense at all. They only become secret when it comes to identifying the grammatical name or function of an underlined or specified group of words.

Here are the three determiners or articles which must tell you that your group of words in very likely a noun phrase:

  • A (also called indefinite article)
  • An (also called indefinite article)
  • The (also called definite article)

Now you know. Let’s move straight ahead to look at some examples

  • I had a busy day.
  • She wore a beautiful dress.
  • A great victory is sure to follow.
  • A third lion attacked the village within as many weeks.
  • It was an unfortunate incident.
  • He bought an expensive pair of shoes.
  • An avalanche came down the hills and destroyed everything we had built.
  • An amazing experience awaits you.
  • They saw the first two athletes as they crossed the line.
  • Come over to the office complex this afternoon
  • The main cause of poverty is lack of planning.
  • The brightest star failed to shine last night.

All the groups of words in bold letters are noun phrases. How do I know? You may ask. Simple. Let me show you how simple it can really get to know that a group of words beginning with a/an/the is a noun phrase.

Three questions can help you to decide for certain if the grammatical name or function of your group of words is noun phrase.

  • Question one

Is the group of words introduced by any of the above three noun phrase markers? Sure! In the examples above each group begins with a or an or the.

This is a very good pointer to the fact that the group of words must be a noun phrase. HOWEVER, IT IS NOT ENOUGH. The behaviour of words in the English sentence is very much unpredictable.

So, take your time and move to the next stage.

Please note:

I can assure you that with constant and regular practice all this becomes really easy.

  • Question two

Can the group of words answer a what-question or a who-question? In other words, is the group of words referring to SOMETHING or SOMEBODY?

The answer with regards to all the above examples is again, YES.

Just look at this:

  • I had a busy day.

Question: What did I have?

Answer: A busy day.

So, a busy day is referring to SOMETHING. For that matter, it is very likely a NOUN phrase.

Read also: The difference between a phrase and a clause

  • Question three

Is the group of words performing one of these common functions of a noun, noun phrase and noun clause?

If you are not very clear about what the grammatical functions of a noun phrase are, just look out for my other tutorials on this subject.

For our purposes here, let’s use this summarized list of the grammatical functions of a noun phrase.

Subject of the main verb in the sentence in question.

Look at this sentence from the list of examples:

  • The brightest star failed to shine last night.

Obviously, THE BRIGHTEST STAR is functioning as the subject of the verb, FAILED in the sentence. That makes it more convincing that it is a noun phrase.

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Object of the main verb in the sentence

Look at this sentence too:

  • She wore a beautiful dress.

A BEAUTIFUL DRESS is functioning as the OBJECT of the verb, WORE. That makes it a noun phrase, if we consider the other questions we asked earlier as well.

Complement of a linking verb or intensive verb.

  • It was an unfortunate incident.

AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT is complement to the linking verb, WAS.

Complement of a preposition within a prepositional phrase.

Here is a good example for you:

  • Come over to the office complex this afternoon.

As you can see, THE OFFICE COMPLEX is complementing the preposition, TO.

Considering the other guidelines we spoke about earlier, therefore, THE OFFICE COMPLEX, just like the rest is a noun phrase.

So, any group of words that is introduced by a, an or the is most likely a noun phrase.

Next time you are presented with any such group of words and asked to state its grammatical name and function, do not panic. Rather, do the following.

  • Begin with the idea that it is most likely a noun phrase
  • Then check to see whether it answers the what-question or who-question I told you about. Is it referring to SOMETHING or SOMEBODY? If yes, then you are on track to nailing it as a noun phrase.
  • Finally, find out if it is performing any one of the commonest functions that nouns generally perform in a sentence: SUBJECT, OBJECT, COMPLEMENT OF A LINKING VERB and COMPLEMENT OF A PREPOSITION.

Now, if you are sure of the fact that it is performing any one of these grammatical functions of nouns, then rest assured that it is a noun phrase.

Give your answer as such and run away with all the marks.

Thank you and good luck.

Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

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