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How the Language Really Works:
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Full References




The Pronoun Test

Within Boxes: Testing for a Complete Noun Phrase

Implications For Reading and Writing

Complete Reference: The Noun Phrase

Full References

The discussion of the choice of language noted that a single concept is often signaled by a variety of words, each word possessing slightly different connotations. We can indicate that people are less than content by saying they are angry , irate , incensed , perturbed , upset , furious , or mad. The broader our vocabulary, the greater our options and the more precisely we can convey our meaning.

And yet no matter how wide our vocabulary may be, a single word is often insufficient. A single word, by itself, can appear somewhat vague, no matter how specific that word might seem. The term “dog” may be specific compared to “mammal,” but it is general compared to “collie.” And “collie” is general compared to “Lassie.” Then again, many different dogs played Lassie!

Suppose you want to indicate a female person across the room. If you don’t know her name, what do you say?   

That girl.

If there were more than one, this alone would be too general. It lacks specificity.

                          The girl in the blue Hawaiian shirt…

                        The taller of the two cheerleaders by the water cooler…

When a single term will not supply the reference we need, we add terms to focus or limit a more general term. Instead of referring to drugs in a discussion, we might refer to hallucinogenic drugs. We might distinguish between hard drugs and prescription drugs . In so doing we modify the notion of a drug to describe the specific one, or ones, we have in mind. (Then again, at times we are forced to use many words when we cannot recall the one that will really do, as when we refer to that funny device doctors pump up on your arm to measure blood pressure instead of a sphygmomanometer ).

This section examines how we construct full and specific references using noun phrases. An ability to recognize complete noun phrases is essential to reading ideas rather than words. A knowledge of the various possibilities for constructing extended noun pharses is essential for crafting precise and specific references.


To begin our discussion, we must first establish the notion of a noun.   

English teachers commonly identify nouns by their content.    They describe nouns as words that "identify people, places, or things," as well as feelings or ideas—words like salesman , farm , balcony , bicycle , and trust.    If you can usually put the word a or the before a word, it’s a noun. If you can make the word plural or singular, it's a noun. But don't worry...all that is needed at the moment is a sense of what a noun might be.   

Noun Pre-Modifiers

What if a single noun isn't specific enough for our purposes?      How then do we modify a noun to construct a more specific reference?    

English places modifiers before a noun.    Here we indicate the noun that is at the center of a noun phrase by an asterisk (*) and modifiers by arrows pointed toward the noun they modify.

white   house


large     man


Modification is a somewhat technical term in linguistics. It does not mean to change something, as when we "modify" a car or dress. To modify means to limit, restrict, characterize, or otherwise focus meaning. We use this meaning throughout the discussion here.

Modifiers before the noun are called pre-modifiers.    All of the pre-modifiers that are present and the noun together form a noun phrase .


pre-modifiers noun


By contrast, languages such as Spanish and French place modifiers after the noun

casa blanca       white house


homme grand       big man


The most common pre-modifiers are adjectives, such as red , long , hot . Other types of words often play this same role.    Not only articles

the       water


but also verbs

running      water


and possessive pronouns

her      thoughts


Premodifiers limit the reference in a wide variety of ways.   

                          Order:                            second, last

                          Location:                        kitchen, westerly

                          Source or Origin:            Canadian

                          Color:                            red, dark

                          Smell:                             acrid, scented

                          Material:                         metal, oak

                          Size:                               large, 5-inch

                          Weight:                          heavy

                          Luster:                            shiny, dull

A number of pre-modifiers must appear first if they appear at all.

                          Specification:                              a, the, every

                          Designation:                                this, that, those, these

                          Ownership/Possessive:               my, your, its, their, Mary’s

              Number:                                     one, many

These words typically signal the beginning of a noun phrase.   

Some noun phrases are short:

                                      the table

                                      ®       *            

Some are long:

the second shiny red Swedish touring sedan


a large smelly red Irish setter


my carved green Venetian glass salad bowl


the three old Democratic legislators


Notice that each construction would function as a single unit within a sentence.    (We offer a test for this below,)

The noun phrase is the most common unit in English sentences.    That prevalence can be seen in the following excerpt from an example from the section on the choice of language:

The stock market’s summer swoon turned into a dramatic rout Monday as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged.

The stock market’s summer swoon
turned into   

a dramatic rout



the Dow Jones industrial average


To appreciate the rich possibilities of pre-modifiers, you have only to see how much you can expand a premodifier in a noun phrase:

the book
the history book
the American history book
the illustrated American history book
the recent illustrated American history book
the recent controversial illustrated American history book
the recent controversial illustrated leather bound American history book

Noun Post-Modifiers

We were all taught about pre -modifiers: adjectives appearing before a noun in school.    Teachers rarely speak as much about adding words after the initial reference.    Just as we find pre -modifiers, we also find    post -modifiers—modifiers coming after a noun.

The most common post-modifiers are prepositional phrases:

the book on the table


civil conflict in Africa


the Senate of the United States


Post-modifiers can be short

a dream deferred


or long, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s reference to

a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves


and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together

at a table of brotherhood.

What does King have?    A dream?    No. He has a specific dream. Once we are sensitive to the existence of noun phrases, we recognize a relatively simple structure to the sentence.   Here we recognize a noun phrase with a very long post-modifier—thirty-two words to be exact.

We do not get lost in the flow of words, but recognize structure. At the point that we recognize structure within the sentence, we recognize meaning. (Notice also that post-modifiers often include clauses which themselves include complete sentences, as in the last example above.)

Post-modifiers commonly answer the traditional news reporting questions of who , what , where , when , how , or why .    Noun post-modifiers commonly take the following forms:

prepositional phrase                the dog in the store


_ing phrase                              the girl running to the store


_ed past tense                          the man wanted by the police


wh - clauses                              the house where I was born


that/which clauses                  the thought that I had yesterday


If you see a preposition, wh - word ( which, who, when where ), -ing verb form, or that or which after a noun, you can suspect a post-modifier and the completion of a noun phrase.  

The noun together with all pre- and post-modifiers constitutes a single unit, a noun phrase that indicates the complete reference. Any agreement in terms of singular/plural is with the noun at the center.

The boys on top of the house    are .............


Here the noun at the center of the noun phrase is plural, so a plural form of the verb is called for (not a singular form to agree with the singular house) .

The Pronoun Test

In school, we were taught that pronouns replaced nouns .    Not so.    Pronouns replace complete noun phrases .    Pronoun replacement thus offers a test of a complete noun phrase. Consider:

The boy ate the apple in the pie.

What did he eat?   

                          The boy ate                the apple in the pie.


Want proof? Introduce the pronoun “it” into the sentence.    If a pronoun truly replaces a noun, we’d get                                  

*The boy ate                  the it in the pie.

No native speaker would say that!    They’d say

              The boy ate               it.

The pronoun replaces the complete noun phrase, the apple in the pie .

This pronoun substitution test can be particualrly useful. Not all prepositional phrases after a noun are necessarily part of the noun phrase – they could be later predicate or sentence modifiers. In other words, we must not only identify noun phrases, we must parse out other material, and in that act recognize broader aspects of sentence structure.

The web page on distinguishing sentence and predicate modifiers (www.criticalreading.com/sentence_predicate_modifiers.htm) discusses the three sentences:

  1. 1. The boy ate the apple in the pie.
  2. 2. The boy ate the apple in the summer.
  3. 3. The boy ate the apple in a hurry.
Only the first includes a noun phrase longer than two words: the apple in the pie.

Boxes Within Boxes: Testing for a Complete Noun Phrase

The goal of reading, we noted above, is not to recognize grammatical features, but to find meaning.    The goal is not to break a sentence or part of a sentence into as small pieces as possible, but to break it into chunks in such a way that fosters the discovery of meaning.   

Consider one of the examples above of a prepositional phrase as a post-modifier:

                          the book on the table

Book is a noun at the center of the noun phrase.    But table is also a noun.    If we analyze the noun phrase completely, on all levels, we find:

                          the book on the table


on the table

         ®    *

We can have prepositional phrase within prepositional phrase within prepositional phrases:

                          …the book on the table in the kitchen…


                                           on the table in the kitchen…


                                                                 in the kitchen


We don't want to recognize every little noun phrase.   We want to recognize the larger ones that shape the meaning.     The book is not "on the table."    The book is "on the table in the kitchen."

The Senate of the United States is composed of two legislators from each State.

Question: Who is in the Senate?   

          a) two legislators

           b) two legislators from each State?

The answer is b). The full Senate consists of two from each state (100 people), not simply two! We read the sentence as

The Senate of the United States         is composed of          

two legislators from each State.


If we read the sentence as

The Senate of the United States         

is composed of two legislators            

from each State.

we miss the meaning.

Earlier we noted that pre -modifiers in noun phrase can be expanded to significant length. For the most part, we increased the length of the pre-modifier by adding additional adjectives, a word or two at a time.    Noun phrase post -modifiers can be expanded to much greater lengths.    We can add long phrases which themselves contain complete sentences.

              the park where I hit a home run when I was in the ninth grade .     


The sentence within the post-modifier is printed in boldface.

The following sentence indicates something was lost.    What was lost?

He lost the book by Mark Twain about the Mississippi that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.

The answer is the complete phrase

……… the book by Mark Twain about the Mississippi that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.

The base term book is modified as to author (Mark Twain), topic (about the Mississippi), as well as intent or purpose (that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.)    We assume that he has another book by Twain about the Mississippi that he did not lose.    Want proof?    What would be replaced by “it”?   

The full reference of a noun phrase is often “conveniently” ignored in movie advertisements. Janet Maslin, movie critic for The New York Times , complained when an advertisement for the video tape of John Grisham’s "The Rainmaker" quoted her as describing the movie as director Francis Ford Coppola’s “best and sharpest film,” when, in fact, her review stated:

John Grisham’s "The Rainmaker" is Mr. Coppola’s best and sharpest film in years. (1)

The original quotation does not refer to the “best and sharpest film” of Coppola’s career, but to his “best and sharpest film in years.”

Noun Phrases: The Dominant Construction

Finally, the degree to which noun phrases are the dominant construction within texts can be seen in the opening paragraph of the Text for Discussion: Annotation - Needle Exchange Programs and the Law - Time for a Change. The complete noun phrases appear within square brackets and appear in red.

(1) In [ his social history of venereal disease ], [ No Magic Bullet ], [ Allan M.   Brandt ]describes[ the controversy in the US military about preventing venereal disease among soldiers during World War I ].   Should there be [ a disease prevention effort that recognized that many young American men would succumb to the charms of French prostitutes ], or should there be [ a more punitive approach to discourage sexual contact ]?    Unlike[ the New Zealand Expeditionary forces ], which gave[ condoms ]to[ their soldiers ],[ the United States ]decided to give [ American soldiers ][after-the-fact, and largely ineffective, chemical prophylaxis ].  [ American soldiers ]also were subject to [ court martial ] if they contracted[ a venereal disease ].  [ These measures ] failed.   [ More than 383,000 soldiers ]were diagnosed with[ venereal diseases ]between April 1917 and December 1919 and lost [ seven million days of active duty ].  [ Only influenza ], which struck in [ an epidemic ], was [ a more common illness among servicemen ].  

Implications For Reading and Writing

The above discussion introduces a number of concepts crucial to effective reading and writing.   

  • We do not read texts word by word, but chunk by chunk.    We must read each grammatical construction as a single unit. Deciphering sentences involves isolating phrases within a sentence and recognizing where long phrases begin and end.
  • To write well is not to string words together, but to string together larger phrases, to create full references that carefully distinguish one idea from another, going beyond talking in vague generalities.    We can increase the clarity and sophistication of our thought by using extended phrases instead of single words.

Sophisticated thought is qualified thought. Intelligent discussion goes beyond either/or or black-or-white views of the world to recognize nuances and distinctions.

Remarks can be

  • extended (made broader or more general) ,
  • qualified (restricted in some way), or
  • limited (made more specific or less encompassing).
We don’t really make sentences longer by adding at the end so much as expanding each chunk

Good writers carefully distinguish between all, most, many , some, few, and one. They specify the specific time, condition, or circumstances an assertion is true. Some claims are made for certain, some "in all probability" or "within a specific margin of error," some for given conditions.

When drawing careful distinctions, authors are not being wishy-washy or nit picking. They are simply being precise. They are saying exactly what they want to say or feel secure in saying based on the available evidence. Weak writers can achieve an immediate gain in the level of thought of their writing by taking advantages of the opportunities for adding pre- and post-modifiers.

For writers, this model is a reminder of the opportunity to extend, limit, or otherwise shape a specific idea. You can greatly increase the sophistication and depth of thought of your work by taking advantage of these pre- and post-modifier "slots". Having written a statement, you might go back in editing to see how you can further shape your thoughts by making use of these slots.

The Constitution is the nation’s charter, and lawmakers should resist the temptation to push for amendments every time an election year rolls around.

Notice how much richer the next sentence is (additional modifiers in bold face) .

The Constitution of the United States is the nation’s bedrock charter, and devoted lawmakers sworn to uphold it should resist the dangerous temptation to push for pandering amendments every time an election year rolls around.

(1) Janet Maslin, “When Phrases That Flatter Are Misused,” The New YorkTimes , Arts & Leisure section, August 23, 1998, p. 9.

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