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Author Topic: Getting to know the noun phrase better  (Read 189 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 23, 2017, 04:30:58 AM »

It’s easy to take the noun for granted. This is because it’s much easier to use than the pronoun and the verb, both of which make inflections or changes in form depending on case, gender, number, tense, person, mood, or voice. In contrast, all we need to know to use a noun in a sentence is its number (singular or plural) along with its gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter). By applying the subject-verb agreement rule, making that noun work properly with a verb then becomes a simple, effortless affair.


Take the single-word noun “daughter.” Obviously singular and feminine, making “daughter” work properly as subject of the verb “live” is simplicity itself: “My daughter lives abroad.” For the plural “daughters,” all we need to do is to use the plural form by dropping the “s” at the verb’s tail end: “My daughters live abroad.” That’s all.


In practice, however, the various forms that the noun takes make applying the subject-verb agreement rule not so simple. In “A total stranger in town in those days (was, were) an unlikely prospect,” for instance, we first need to clearly recognize that the operative subject is the whole phrase “a total stranger in town in those days,” not the plural “those days.” Only then can we pick “was” as the correct operative verb: “A total stranger in town in those days was an unlikely prospect.” The not-so-uncommon mistake of picking the plural “those days” as the operative noun, of course, results in subject-verb disagreement: “A total stranger in town in those days were an unlikely prospect.”

The four forms the noun usually takes in sentences are the noun phrase, noun clause, infinitive phrase, and gerund phrase, which in long or complicated constructions become vulnerable to subject-verb agreement errors. To ensure grammatical correctness, we thus need to thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the grammar of these noun forms.

The noun phrase. This form consists of a single-word noun and any modifiers associated with it. Modifiers can be any combination of determiners, prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs, as those found in these three noun phrases: “his only win after a string of five losses,” “a full 16 kilometers of treacherous dirt roads,” and “the leader of the troubled village during those fateful years.”

                        CHART CREDIT: ENGLISH AT NLS

With such long noun phrases, it takes some doing to identify which noun in the phrase should determine whether the verb should be singular or plural. For instance, in the sentence “His only win after a string of five losses (was, were) enough to revive his spirits,” is the operative subject “win,” “string,” or “losses”? Logic tells us that it’s the singular noun “win,” not the plural “losses.”  

As a general rule for using a noun phrase in a sentence, all of its words should form an unbroken string with its operative noun. This should be so regardless of where the operative noun is positioned, at or near the beginning of the phrase, as “leader” is in “the leader of the troubled village during those fateful years,” or at the tail end, as “road” is in “a full 16 kilometers of treacherous dirt road.”

The noun phrase being a contiguous whole in both examples, applying the subject-verb agreement rule is easy: “The leader of the troubled town village during those fateful days is now the provincial governor.” “A full 16 kilometers of treacherous dirt road is not my idea of a highway.”

But for longer, more complicated noun phrases, putting the operative verb after the whole noun phrase can create awkward, confusing sentences. Take this sentence with a 15-word phrase as subject: “The time for our two companies to consolidate resources against our increasingly tough foreign competition has come.” Grammar-perfect, but utterly disorienting!

What do we do to make its sense clearer?

This essay, 1067th in the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the November 23, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next: Dealing with long, complicated noun phrases)   November 30, 2017

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