Noun Phrases

Often a noun phrase is just a noun or a pronoun:

People like to have money.
I am tired.
It is getting late.

or a determiner and a noun …:

Our friends have bought a house in the village.
Those houses are very expensive.

… perhaps with an adjective:

Our closest friends have just bought a new house in the village.

Sometimes the noun phrase begins with a quantifier:

All those children go to school here.
Both of my younger brothers are married
Some people spend a lot of money.


Quantifiers come before determiners, but numbers come after determiners:

My four children go to school here. (All my children go to school here.)
Those two suitcases are mine. (Both those suitcases are mine)

So the noun phrase is built up in this way:

Noun: people; money
Determiner + noun: the village, a house, our friends; those houses
Quantifier + noun: some people; a lot of money
Determiner + adjective + noun: our closest friends; a new house.
Quantifier + determiner + noun: all those children;
Quantifier + determiner + adjective + noun: both of my younger brothers

The noun phrase can be quite complicated:

a loaf of nice fresh brown bread
the eight-year-old boy who attempted to rob a sweet shop with a pistol
that attractive young woman in the blue dress sitting over there in the corner

Match noun phrases to patterns

Some words and phrases come after the noun. These are called postmodifiers. A noun phrase can be postmodified in several ways. Here are some examples:

• with a prepositional phrase:

a man with a gun
the boy in the blue shirt
the house on the corner

• with an –ing phrase:

the man standing over there
the boy talking to Angela

• with a relative clause:

the man we met yesterday
the house that Jack built
the woman who discovered radium
an eight-year-old boy who attempted to rob a sweet shop

• with a that clause.
This is very common with reporting or summarising nouns like idea, fact, belief, suggestion:

He’s still very fit, in spite of the fact that he’s over eighty.
She got the idea that people didn’t like her.
There was a suggestion that the children should be sent home.

• with a to-infinitive.
This is very common after indefinite pronouns and adverbs:

You should take something to read.
I need somewhere to sleep.
I’ve got no decent shoes to wear.

There may be more than one postmodifier:

an eight-year old boy with a gun who tried to rob a sweet shop
that girl over there in a green dress drinking a coke


Match types of postmodifiers to phrases


There are four complex noun phrases in this section:

The accident happened at around 3pm on Wednesday. A man climbing nearby who saw the accident said “It was the most amazing rescue I have ever seen.” 42-year-old Joe Candler saw Miss Johnson’s fall along with his partner Fay Hamilton.

The rescue is the latest in a series of incidents on High Peak. In January last year two men walking on the peak were killed in a fall when high winds blew them off the mountain.



I've read on many books and websites that phrases are supposed to be a group of words without a verb and subject.

My question is, if that statement is true, how do we explain postmodifiers such as "the man we met yesterday." This phrase clearly has a subject and verb.

Hello kakakevin,

That is not a definition we use or would use. A phrase is a word or collection of words which forms a grammatical unit in a sentence. Phrases can be part of a clause but they can also be clauses.

The definition on the relevant wikipedia page is a perfectly good one:


In linguistic analysis, a phrase is a group of words (or possibly a single word) that functions as a constituent in the syntax of a sentence, a single unit within a grammatical hierarchy. A phrase typically appears within a clause, but it is possible also for a phrase to be a clause or to contain a clause within it.



The LearnEnglish Team

Aren't a relative clause and an adjective clause one and the same? I'm partial to using the term adjective clause as I believe the plain name is more helpful to ESL students. With '-ing phrase', the explanation is written plainly, but I'd prefer that the entire description be either formal or informal. A that-clause following a noun is a relative clause, so I don't understand the distinction between them in the lesson above. In adjective clauses which have the relative pronoun and a variant of be (are/is/was/were) may drop the relative pronoun and the form of be to form a reduced clause. Additionally, when the word replaced by the relative pronoun is an object, the relative pronoun may be dropped. However, the one that would have begun with that still technically has a 'that' place holder and would still be a that-clause. That-clauses seem to have a more useful distinction with noun-clauses as I see it. Aren't the gerund and infinitive forms reduced clauses? Would it not be better to put them both into the category of reduced clauses and describe the variants?
Allow me to put my comment into context as I do not mean to be splitting hairs with you. As my students may be taking this quiz, which I'm grateful that you've made available, I'm most interested in simplicity with rules that are as black and white as possible. I'd like to offer such quizzes on my own website, but my computer skills aren't up to the task.
I've worked side-by-side with British Council staff at various institutions and have been delighted with their work ethic and good nature.

Hello wegugin,

You will find the terms 'relative clause' and 'adjectival clause' used interchangeably in some places and I know a number of teachers who follow your line of reasoning. Personally I prefer the term 'relative clause' for several reasons.

There are a number of relative clauses which are poorly described as adjectival in my view. One such is the nominal relative clause, sometimes called a fused relative clause:

What he did surprised many people, but not me.

'What he did' has the meaning of 'The thing that he did' and so we can see the relationship to what you would call an adjective clause. However, it contains the sense of the noun within itself and has a nominal function in the sentence (being the subject of the verb 'surprised'). It is difficult to justify describing this as an adjectival clause. A similar issue arises with appositive clauses such as 'She got the idea that people didn’t like her', where the clause renames, so to speak, the noun ('idea') rather than describing it in an adjectival sense.


In any description of language which is intended for learners (rather than for abstract linguistic analysis) we need to balance accuracy and helpfulness. We often find that a linguistically rigorous and precise explanation is counter-productive, and something more accessible is helpful. An example is the the way language teachers talk about 'first conditional', 'second conditional' and so on, which describe entirely arbitrary distinctions but which may be helpful for learners at a particular stage of learning.


On this page we present learners with various possible ways to postmodify a noun phrase and group them in ways that we consider most accesible and helpful. We could put -ing phrases in the same group as relative clauses but this would require some explanation of how the learner can go from a relative clause to a reduced relative clause, including active and passive distinctions. Instead, we provide a list of ready-made postmodifiers, choosing this as a more accessible approach and leaving how relative clauses can be reduced to be dealt with on other pages. This is a judgement call, of course, and it may well be that a different way of organising and describing them suits you, your approach and your students' needs better.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team


Thank you for your prompt reply, and happy new year to you.

In the sentence 'What he did surprised many people, but not me' with the nominal clause 'What he did', which I would teach as a noun clause making no reference to adjective clauses, you say that it is related to the adjective / relative clause 'the thing that he did.' (Note: I do not use the terms relative, adjectival, or nominal when teaching this to ESL students as they seem to get lost in the terms.) I see the relationship and have mentioned this to students on occasion, most notably when the wording seems awkward. I teach them that nominal clauses as subjects are mainly used in speech rather than writing. I just can't wrap my head around the relationship between the two being necessary rather than coincidental and need to ponder this more. Do you know of a linguistic text that delves into this? I teach appositives (as well as necessary & extra information) using Introduction to Academic Writing 3 (3rd Edition), chapter 8 (Hogue), after having taught general adjective clauses from Fundamentals of English Grammar (Azar).

How he did that surprised many people, but not me. (the way in which)
Why he did that surprised many people, but not me. (the reason that)
Where he did that surprised many people, but not me. (the place in which)
When he did that surprised many people, but not me. (the time in which)
Which language he spoke surprised many (the language that he spoke)
What time he knocked on the door (the time that he knocked on the door)

I don't think that it is necessary to break these down into nouns with adjective clauses... or maybe it is, and I am missing something. It seems to me that the ability to do this and the necessity are not one and the same, but I guess I'm arguing with our linguistic forebears at this point. I am of the ilk that thinks that grammar should be simple and unencumbered. This is one of the judgment calls that I've made in favor of simplicity for my students. There are noun clauses and adjective clauses, and this is what they do and how they are used in a sentence.

Your response has been quite instructive. Would you mind touching on that-clauses and why there is a distinction between them and relative clauses? Or have I missed that in your response?

All the best,


Hello again Albert,

I agree that clarity and simplicity are important aspects in effective language teaching and I know that many teachers follow your line with adjective/relative clauses.

The discussion is interesting but goes a little beyond the scope of this site, which is aimed at students rather than teachers. I find a good place for this kind of exploration is stackexchange, where you can do a search for relevant discussions, or begin one yourself. You might also visit our sister site for teachers, where you will find similar comments sections to those on here.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Peter.

All the best,


Hi Teachers,

I've come across other resources which describe compound nouns (noun + noun, e.g. apple tree, office chair etc) and also, another page from your website dealing with noun modifiers (also noun + noun, e.g. village church, ice bucket etc). Not to compare or anything, but I suppose they are all talking about the same thing, that is a noun modifying a noun?

Also, is it a rule that the first noun must be singular? or is it simply a case where the first noun can be either singular or plural (i.e. no fixed rule as it depends on usage, dictionary best able to advise), but that the first noun tends to be in the singular form for most compound nouns?

Thanks in advance for the advice!


Hi Tim,

Yes, in compound nouns the first noun is always singular. The only exceptions to this are certain borrowings from other languages (typically French) which are really noun + adjective combinations now treated as compound nouns. An example would be attorney  general which has the plural form attorneys general.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi team ,

Kindly explain the difference between the two nouns " opportunity" and "fortune" in this context please as I understand that both nouns mean a chance to do something so I am confused which noun gives the correct meaning

" He is not a remarkable businessman but that he simply had the good fortune / or opportunity to be in the right place at the right time"

Thank you.