Noun Phrases: Definition, Purpose, and Use

Updated October 28, 2022
definition of "noun phrase" with two example sentences restated from the article
    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

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)

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)

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.

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.

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