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Chapter 3: Phrases

1 The Phrase

1.1 The Noun Phrase (NP)

1.2 The Verb Phrase (VP)

1.3 The Adjective Phrase (AdjP) and Adverb Phrase (AdvP)

1.4 The Prepositional Phrase (PP)

2 Phrases in the Sentence

3 Coordination of phrases

4 Determining Phrases (Optional)

5 Conclusion


Keys to the Exercises

Further Reading

Review of chapters 1-3

Special topic

Chapter 3: PHRASES

Sentences can be divided into groups of words that belong together. For instance, in the nice unicorn ate a delicious meal, the, nice, and unicorn form one such group and a, delicious, and meal form another. (We all know this intuitively). The group of words is called a phrase. If the most important part of the phrase, i.e. the head, is an adjective, the phrase is an Adjective Phrase; if the most important part of the phrase is a noun, the phrase is a Noun Phrase, and so on. One could indicate phrases by putting brackets around them, but that gets confusing if the sentence is complex, and as an alternative, `trees' are used. Trees render the structure of the sentence clearer and less ambiguous. The grammatical categories (Determiner, Auxiliary, Coordinator, and Complementizer) do not form phrases of their own but function inside a Noun Phrase (NP), Verb Phrase (VP), Adjective Phrase (AdjP), Adverb Phrase (AdvP), or Preposition Phrase (PP).

In section 1, the structure of phrases is studied and in section 2, the structure for a full sentence and its phrases is discussed. The head of a phrase is important, but often this is intuitively understood. Phrases are very often coordinated by means of and or or and a structure for this is given in section 3. In section 4, more precise rules are given on how to identify phrases.

Why nobody diagrams sentences anymore!!


1.   The Phrase

1.1  The Noun Phrase (NP)

An NP such as the nice unicorn is built around a noun, namely, unicorn. This noun is called the head of the NP. In addition to the head, NPs can contain determiners (e.g. the) and adjectives (nice) as well as other elements. A tree structure for an NP is given in (1). The lines (called branches) indicate how the phrase is divided up:


In chapter 9, a structure for (1) is suggested that looks like (2):

2 a.

A structure such as (2a) expresses the relationships more accurately than (1). In (1), it is unclear whether the specifies the adjective or the noun; in (2a), the specifies nice unicorn. A structure as in (1) with more than two branches is a flat structure since the hierarchies are not clear. In this book, I will mainly use structures such as (2a).

There are a number of things to note. First, I have left certain nodes unlabelled since the names always seem to create problems for students. If you prefer to label them, we will. Second, notice that in (2a) nice is itself the head of an Adjective Phrase (see 1.3 as well) and we could indicate that as in (2b):

2 b.

     On occasion, it may be hard to find the head of an NP, or to identify the entire NP. For instance, the initial group of words in (3) is centered around a noun. Which noun do you think is the head and how extended is the NP?

3.   The unpleasant unicorn from Malacandra loves dogfood.

The right answer is that unicorn is the head because if you had to shorten the sentence, you might say the unicorn loves dogfood. Thus, unpleasant and from Malacandra add additional information. Another way to shorten the sentence is to use a pronoun, as in (4). This is called pronominalization, and indicates that the phrase is the unpleasant unicorn from Malacandra:

4.   It loves dogfood.

You can also find the entire phrase by examining which parts say something about the head, i.e. modify it. Thus, in (3), both unpleasant and from Malacandra have no other function in the sentence than to modify the head unicorn.

     We could represent (3) as (5):


This structure indicates that the NP is composed of five words, but it does not say whether from is more connected to Malacandra or to unicorn. This is a flat structure since we don't see what goes with what. More hierarchical structures are given in (6ab):



In (6a), from Malacandra goes together with unicorn. In a structure, this close connection is expressed by having the line, i.e. `branch', that goes upwards connect to the same point, i.e. `node'. This means they are `sisters' in the structure. In (6b), unpleasant and unicorn are put closer together, i.e. are sisters. Both structures are possible since (3) is slightly ambiguous. The meaning difference between (6a) and (6b) is minimal, but this is not always the case as sentences such as (16) below show.

     Frequently, a Relative Clause, who wore that ugly hat in (7) is part of an NP, as shown by brackets:

7.   [The person [who wore that ugly hat]] is the queen.

A structure for (7) will be given in chapter 10. For now, just understand that it is part of the NP.

     Structures such as (6) are often called trees. As mentioned, the lines connecting parts of the trees are called branches, and the points where the branches come together are called nodes. The nodes are usually labelled, e.g. N or NP. Notice, however, that some nodes in (6ab) are not labelled. This indicates that the node is an intermediate one between the top NP and the N. In other grammars, this intermediate node is called NOM and in chapter 9, N' is suggested (pronounced N-bar), and (6ab) are slightly changed. Such intermediate nodes (or the NOM or the N') allow one to indicate which elements are grouped together and thus make trees less flat. We'll experiment with this in class and see if you prefer to leave the node nameless or label it N'.

Beginning of chapter

1.2  The Verb Phrase (VP)

As was seen in chapter 2, a VP is built around a verb, which can indicate an action, as in (8a), a state, as in (8b), or a sensation, as in (8c). Verbs can be in the present or past tense (they are past in (8abc)). Some VPs include other obligatory material, i.e. words or phrases that cannot easily be left out, such as the NP in (8a), the PP in (8b), and the AdjP in (8c). These obligatory parts will be discussed in the next chapters:


The VP can also include optional material that explains when, where, why, and how the action or state that the verb describes took place. These optional elements function as adverbials and will be discussed in chapter 5.

     As in the case of the NP, a VP can be pronominalized. An example is given in (9), where the (bolded) VP washed the dishes is replaced by do so. Some linguists called these pro-VPs or pro-forms, since they do not stand for nouns. It is up to you whether you call them pronoun or pro-form:

9.   John washed the dishes and Maija did so as well.

1.3  The Adjective Phrase (AdjP) and Adverb Phrase (AdvP)

AdjPs are built around adjectives, which indicate properties of nouns; AdvPs are built around adverbs which indicate qualities of verbs, adverbs, and adjective. Since adjectives and adverbs have this qualifying function, they themselves are (optionally) accompanied by a degree marker such as very, too, extremely, really. The latter are adverbs of a special kind: they always modify another adverb or adjective and never modify a verb. They are comparable to the determiner in the NP, and more like grammatical than lexical categories.

     An example of an Adjective Phrase with an Adverb Phrase modifying the adjective is shown in (10):


In (10), the head of the AdjP is the adjective safe, but this head is modified by an AdvP, whose head in turn is the adverb environmentally. Very is one of the special adverbs mentioned in the previous paragraph, namely a degree adverb, that does not form a phrase of its own.

     An AdjP can be pronominalized, as in (11), but pronominalizing an AdvP, as in (12), sounds awkward:

11.  I was happy and so was she.

12.  He behaved nicely, and she behaved so/thus.


1.4  The Prepositional Phrase (PP)

A PP is built around a preposition. As mentioned in the previous chapter, prepositions indicate relations in space and time. PPs include a P and an NP and can be replaced (pronominalized) by then, there, etc. An example is given in (13):


In this section, it is necessary to jump ahead to chapters 4, 5, 9 and 10 where functions are discussed. Up to now, we have looked at the names of categories and phrases, e.g. N and NP. Depending on where phrases are situated in the tree, they play a particular function, such as subject and object. Functions will not be put in the tree structure because it should be clear from the tree. With respect to PPs, it is not always easy to determine what the role is they play and their function in a sentence is manifold, as we'll see in chapter 5. For instance, in the ambiguous (14), an often used sentence, does the PP function inside the NP, or are the NP and PP independent of one another?

14.  She saw the man with glasses.

The answer to both questions is `yes' because the sentence is ambiguous. In the one case, the PP with glasses modifies the man and functions inside the NP the man with glasses; in the other case, the PP is independent of the NP since it modifies the VP and specifies how the seeing was done. The structure for the former reading is as in (15a) and for the latter reading as in (15b). Thus, trees disambiguate:


Thus, a particular tree structure disambiguates the sentence. For now, don't worry about (15b) too much. We will come back to this in detail in chapter 5.

     Groucho Marx uses structural ambiguity as in (14) above a lot. Consider how the PP in my pajamas in (16) is ambiguous, in at least two ways:

16.  I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know.

There is a funny interpretation, namely, that the elephant is wearing the pajamas of the speaker while being shot. The straightforward interpretation is that the speaker shot an elephant while the speaker was wearing pajamas. Trees for these are given in (17ab):


As explained in chapter 1, structural ambiguity is different from lexical ambiguity. With lexical ambiguity, a word has two meanings, e.g. case in chapter 1. Another instance is (18), a well-known joke, where the preposition outside is lexically ambiguous. Outside and inside look like each other's opposites in expressing a location, but in fact outside has an additional meaning, namely `in addition to; except for':

18.  Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside it's too hard to read.

Beginning of chapter

2.   Phrases in the sentence

Having provided a tree structure for all of the phrases whose heads are lexical categories, I will now show how to combine these into a sentence. The basic structure for a sentence is shown in (19):


Thus, the initial element in the sentence is generally an NP (as we'll see in the next chapter, the function of this NP is subject). The NP is a daughter of the sentence S (i.e. immediately below S and connected by a tree branch). The rest of the sentence is the VP which can be more complex (as seen in (8), (15), and (17) above) as can the NP (as seen in (6)). Notice that pronouns such as he in (19) branch directly off NP since they represent the entire NP.

     The relationships that are relevant in a tree are sister and daughter/mother. In (19), the NP and VP are sisters to each other and daughters of S. Sisters have a close relationship. Thus, in (15a), the relationship between the V see and the NP the man with glasses is a direct one since they are sisters, but the relationship between glasses and the V see is an indirect one.

     As we'll see in the next chapter, each phrase has a function to play in the sentence. These functions can be read off the tree. For instance, in (19), the NP is the subject and the VP is the predicate; in (8a), the verb wrote is the head of the VP and its sister, the NP the letter, is the object.

3    Coordination of phrases

Phrases and categories are often coordinated, as long as they are the same kind. For instance, in (20) and (21), two prepositions are coordinated, and in (22), two VPs are:

20.  She went [in] and [out] the house.

21.  The dog went [under] and [over] the fence.

22.  I [read books] and [listened to music].

When the elements that are coordinated are not the same, e.g. an NP and a PP in (23), the sentence becomes ungrammatical:

23.  *I read [a book] and [to Janet].

Coordination can be used to recognize phrases and categories. If you know one phrase or category, then the other will be the same phrase or category.

     The structure for coordinate constructions is controversial. A number of linguists argue that the relationship between the coordinated phrases is completely equal and hence that a structure as in (25a) is appropriate. Others feel that the first phrase is somewhat more important and use (25b):

24.  Books and magazines sell easily.

25 a.

Arguments can be found for either structure. For ease of representation, I'll use (18a), but feel free to use (18b). We can usually switch around the NPs in (24) and this seems to be an argument in favor of (18a) since both NPs have the same status. However, when we move part of the books and magazines, as in (26), and remains with the second NP and this speaks in favor of (18b) since and magazines is a unit but books and is not:

26.  I read books yesterday and magazines.

4   Finding Phrases

A phrase is a group of words forming a unit and united around a head, e.g. a noun or a verb. Since phrases are syntactic units, a number of rules apply to them. Some of these have been discussed above, namely pronominalization and coordination. Three additional ones can be added. For instance, in (27), to the store is a phrase for the five reasons given in table 3.1:

27.  She ran to the store.

a.   it can be pronominalized: She ran there;

b.   it can be coordinated with a phrase of the same kind:

          She ran to the bookstore and to the library;

c.   it can be deleted: She ran;

d.   it can be replaced by a wh-element: Where did she run?

e.   it can be moved: To the store she ran.

TABLE 3.1: Forming phrases


To the store is a PP because a Preposition, namely to, is the head.

     All phrases can be pronominalized and coordinated. However, not all phrases can be deleted. The initial NP is very important, and in English, sentences are ungrammatical without it. Thus, changing (27) into (28) produces an ungrammatical sentence:

28.  *Ran to the store.

In chapters 4 and 5, we will discuss what kinds of phrases can be deleted and what kinds cannot. Not all phrases can be replaced by a wh-element either: VPs cannot. When we question the sentence, we do so by moving the (auxiliary) verb, as in (29):

29.  Will she run to the store?

The ability to move depends on the function the element plays in the sentence: optional/deletable elements can be moved more easily than obligatory ones. This is shown in (30) and (31); in (30), the optional to the store is moved with a grammatical result, but in (31), when the non-optional the woman is moved the result is an ungrammatical sentence:

30.  To the store she ran.

31.  *Ran to the store the woman.

Beginning of chapter

5    Conclusion

In this chapter, phrases and their tree structure are introduced. A lexical category such as a noun typically has other elements around it that modify it. This group of words and the head form a phrase. All lexical categories head phrases and each of these is discussed. Phrases are combined into sentences (or S), as in (19) above. A structure for phrases that are coordinated is also given. The key terms in this chapter are phrases (NP, VP, AdjP, AdvP and PP); S; flat as opposed to non-flat/hierarchical structures; ambiguity; pronominalization; and coordination.


A.   Identify the phrases in (32) to (35). Find the NP and VP that are sisters to each other, as well as the phrases inside the VP:

32.  Tom submits his tax-return on time every year.

33.  Kim's painting made Max extremely unhappy.

34.  Everyone seemed extraordinarily self-confident at the time.

35.  He remained an agnostic all his life.

B.   Draw the tree structure in (36) to (38):

36.  I planted a dogwood tree near the park.

37.  The trees in the park are unhappy.

38.  The man with the monstrously ugly umbrella left the house.

C.   What do trees express?

D.   Sentence (39) is ambiguous. Draw two trees indicating the ambiguity by means of a different structure. Which element is sister to which one?

39.  I hit the Martian with a telescope.

E.   Indicate the structure of (40) by means of a tree structure. Is (40) ambiguous? If so, explain how:

40.  I like a house with a porch with rocking chairs.


F.   Draw a structure for (41) and (42):

41.  Tom and Jerry make good ice cream.

42.  They washed dishes and cleaned the sink.

G.   In chapter 1, section 1.2, two instances of structural ambiguity are given. Can you explain the ambiguity in terms of structure?


     Give some reasons justifying your choice of some of the phrases in A.

Keys to the Exercises

A.   -In (32), [Tom] is an NP and [submits his tax-return on time every year] is a VP; [his tax-return] is an NP; [on time] is a PP and [every year] is an NP.

     -In (33), [Kim's painting] is an NP and [made Max extremely unhappy] is a VP; [Kim] is another NP; [Max] an NP; and [extremely unhappy] an AdjP.

     -In (34), [Everyone] is an NP; [seemed extraordinarily self-confident at the time] a VP; [extraordinarily self-confident] an AdjP; and [at the time] a PP.

     -In (35), [He] is an NP; [remained an agnostic all his life] is a VP; [an agnostic] an NP and [all his life] an NP.

B.   The tree for (36) is

The tree for (37) is:

The tree for (38) is:

C.   The trees express what goes with what.


E.   If the structure for (40) is the one drawn in (a), you like a house with both a porch and with rocking chairs and the rocking chairs can be anywhere in the house. If it is drawn as in (b), you like a house with a porch that has rocking chairs and the rocking chairs have to be on the porch:

Trees will be handed out in class: they are too long for the computer program.



H.   In (32), Tom is an NP because it can be pronominalized, i.e. replaced by he; it can be coordinated with another NP as in Tom and his accountant submit the forms on time. It cannot be deleted or moved because it is the subject as we will see in chapter 4. It can be questioned as in Who submits the forms on time?

     Submits his tax-return on time every year is a VP since it can be pronominalized, i.e. replaced by do so as in Tom submits his tax-return on time every year and Jeremy does so too. It can also be coordinated with another VP as in Tom submits his tax-return on time every year but neglects to renew his car insurance.

     His tax-return is an NP since it can be replaced by it, can be coordinated as in Tom submits his tax-return and insurance claims on time every year, and moved as in It is his tax-return that Tom submits on time every year.

     And so on...

Beginning of chapter

Special Topic: Negative Concord

Unlike most of the special topics, Negative Concord does not supplement the material covered in the above chapter, but is an often debated phenomenon.

The prescriptive rule is: "Two negatives in one sentence make the sentence positive", or as Swan (1980: 182) puts it "[i]n standard English, nobody, nothing, never etc are themselves enough to make the sentence negative, and not is unnecessary".

     We use certain types of multiple negatives in our utterances all the time, e.g. in (43) and (44b). In (43), the sentence expresses negation since the no is outside and independent of the I don't want to go. In this sentence, the negatives do not cancel each other out, since the negatives are independent of each other, and the sentence is prescriptively correct. In (44b), an answer to (44a), nothing is negated and the sentence could be paraphrased as (45). In this sentence, the negatives cancel each other out:

43.  No, I don't want to go.

44.  a:   I paid nothing for that.

     b:   Five dollars is not nothing.

45.  Five dollars is quite something.

Since (43) and (44) follow the rule, they are not objected to by prescriptive grammarians.

     A sentence such as (46), however, is said to be incorrect if it means the same as (47) or (48):

46.  They don't have no problems.

47.  They don't have problems.

48.  They don't have any problems.

Since two negatives are supposed to make a positive in (46), the phenomenon is referred to as Negative Concord, i.e. the two negatives work together to emphasize the negation rather than cancel each other out. Sentences such as (46) occur very frequently in spoken, informal English. When a student code of conduct was being considered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a protest sign read as below:

The negation on do is perhaps felt as too weak in English and that's the reason behind adding another negative. In earlier English, as discussed in chapter 1, multiple negation was very common, perhaps because not was not a contracted form yet.

Further Reading

On phrases, see Radford (1988, chap 2-3); on Multiple Negation, see Jespersen (1940: chapter 23); Labov (1972).




The first chapter shows that we know quite a bit about language intuitively without formal training and the second and third chapters make some of this knowledge explicit. Chapter 2 lists the lexical and grammatical categories we make use of, and chapter 3 shows how sentences can be divided into phrases, each of which is centered around a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition.


Exercises relevant to these chapters:

A. Please comment on `You look real nice'. When would you say this; when might you say something else.

B. Explain the difference between linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge.


C. List the categories in (1), both lexical and grammatical:

1. Zoya painted the chairs in the rain.

Provide the phrase structure or tree for (1).


D. Is (1) ambiguous? Depending on your answer, explain why or why not.


E. Please list the lexical and grammatical categories in (2):

2. The pig from Mars ate his food.


F. What are the phrasal units and why is ate his not a unit?


Keys to the Exercises: in class

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