Category Archives: Phrases

Should I watch it? – Tell me in a (noun) phrase …

It’s really useful to understand the structure of noun phrases. Along with verb phrases, they form the backbone of all our written and spoken language. They can be short and concise (a single word – yes, even a single word can count as a ‘phrase’ because there is always the opportunity to add extra detail …) or they can carry huge amounts of information.

Looking at the brief film descriptions you see in television listings is a great starting point for learning about noun phrases.1195431703233884825Stellaris_Clapper-board.svg.med

Simple Noun Phrases

So, we’re going to start with a single word. We call this the head of the noun phrase.

Film genres wordle

Simple noun phrases consist of a single noun (or pronoun), or a determiner + noun.  Each of the genre nouns above is the head of a simple noun phrase. From the denotations and connotations of each word, we can get a good idea of what a film will contain.

horror     

a film designed to horrify, usually through the depiction of the supernatural and violence [DENOTATION]

dark tone; monstrous happenings;  associated feelings such as fear, shock, loathing, dread [CONNOTATIONS]

biopic

a film based on the biography of a well-known public or historical figure [DENOTATION]

true, but dramatised with some fabrication or manipulation  [CONNOTATIONS]

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Complex noun phrases: pre-modification

While a single head noun will give a broad sense of a film’s type,  TV listings will often use words in front of the head to give readers a more precise understanding of a particular film. We call these complex noun phrases because they contain modifiers.

Pre-modifiers come before the head noun in a noun phrase. They can be adjective phrases, nouns or non-finite verbs (usually -ing present participles and -ed past participles).defining film words

The examples above are defining modifiers – they limit the range of reference of the head noun by specifying something distinctive about the film genre. For example, a comic film could be defined as

a slapstick sports comedy

 a battle-of-the-sexes comedy

a fashion-industry satirical comedy

a culture-clash comedy

A Western could be defined as

an epic western

a Spaghetti western

a spoof western

a Civil War western

Each of the modifiers provides additional information refining our expectations: the adjective ‘spoof’ suggests a film that  will mimic the features of a traditional western for comic effect; the noun ‘Spaghetti’ suggests a western in the style of the Italian director Sergio Leone. The words tend to be objective, reflecting qualities that are easily observable or quantifiable.

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Modifiers can also be added to communicate a reviewer’s opinions. We call these evaluative modifiers – the examples below have positive connotations.

positive evaluative film words

 These modifiers come before the defining modifiers and are subjective – they reflect a particular person’s point of view.

technically-brilliant, occasionally harrowing war drama

a thought-provoking period drama

a beautifully-rendered animated adventure

a spectacular fantasy adventure

victorian-couple-mdEvaluative modifiers may comment on the physical features of filming (technically-brilliant, beautifully rendered), or may reflect the reviewer’s emotional response (thought-provoking, spectacular).

Evaluative modifiers can also communicate negative opinions.

negative evalutive film words

 an uninspired teen romance

a plodding spy thriller

a rather simplistic action adventure

a heavy-going biographical drama

From these examples, you can see how to build up strings of words before the head noun in a noun phrase to shape the meaning. Non-finite verbs like uninspired, intriguing, plodding, affecting and heavy-going, and  adjectives like enjoyable, dreary, stylish, watchable and crass control our response to the head word. We can use degree adverbs like very, rather, quite, incredibly to refine the modifiers.

Compound modifiers are common because they communicate a lot of information in a small space. For example, effects-heavy, stop-motion, Flintstones-esque, part-animated.  Coordinating conjunctions are also often used to link strings of modifiers, or to create contrasts. For example, crass, gross and witless; frantic but fun.

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Complex noun phrases: post-modification

Noun phrases can also be post-modified by adding information after the head noun. The most common linguistic structures are prepositional phrases (starting with a preposition), relative clauses (starting with the relative pronouns who, which, that, where i.e. ‘in which’), and non-finite clauses (starting with non-finite verbs: usually -ed past participles or -ing present participles).

a charmless sports comedy based on a true story 

(non-finite -ed clause)

a spectacular adventure brimming with breezy black humor

(non-finite -ing clause)

Low-budget action movie about a daring escape from a PoW camp

(prepositional phrase)

a compelling thriller that paints a devastating picture of the global finance industry

(that relative clause)

a nail-biting creepy classic horror which is a spine-tingling delight

(which relative clause)

 As you can see from these examples, the post-modifiers can also include defining modifiers (true, global finance) and evaluative modifiers (breezy, devastating, spine-tingling). This is because there are also noun phrases embedded in the post-modifying structures:

  • post-modifying prepositional phrases are made up of a  preposition + noun phrase

special-effects-laden sci-fi comedy about a teenager who travels back in time

film-noir horror with a mean and moody landscape

quirky animation for the discerning 

uplifting fantasy from the makers of the award-winning cartoon

  • post-modifying non-finite clauses are made up of a non-finite verb (+ preposition) + noun phrase

tremendously exciting action thriller showcasing amazing martial arts skills

decent romance featuring A-lister Hollywood stars

period drama telling a tale of doomed love in 19th-century New York

brash musical adapted from the hit Broadway show

  • post-modifying relative clauses are made up of a relative pronoun  + verb + noun phrase/adjective phrase

classic western which exploits the tragic resettlement of the Cheyenne by the US government

whimsical comedy that becomes increasingly thought-provoking

OR 

relative pronoun + noun phrase + verb 

comedy where the new girl struggles to find her way in an American high school 

dreary adventure in which an assassin is hired to hunt down a girl in witness protection

 A noun phrase can carry a huge amount of information – by carefully selecting the type and tone of the pre- and post-modification, TV listings can help us to choose whether we will enjoy a particular film .

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Are you going to watch?

Use the examples below to test your knowledge.  Find the head noun; work out what kinds of modification have been used; and finally, think about the semantic effects created. Which films would you want to see?

Well-played but predictable comedy in which an uptight 30-something reconnects with her hippy mom

Commendable mystery

Tedious zombie-slaying adventure

Stylish and gritty drama based on a true story

Misfiring fantasy featuring four interconnected stories

Warm-hearted animation for the whole family

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A Woman who …

550px-Margaret_Thatcher_(Retouched)The death of a public figure  is always marked by a respectful reflection which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a career lived in the public eye. The announcement of the death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday 8th April was no exception. On Tuesday 9th April, the newspapers were full of comment and interpretation of a political life that changed British society – and that is something that all commentators can agree on, whatever their political position

Thatcher 2

 This word cloud is made from the language being used by journalists and commentators, friends, colleagues and members of the public in remembering Margaret Thatcher. Inevitably, she has been remembered for her ‘firsts’: first woman leader of a party; first woman Prime Minister; longest serving twentieth century prime minister; and the only British Prime Minister to have a new word created based on her name. This is an example of derivation by affixation: the proper noun Thatcher + the Greek suffix –ism (‘one who believes in’) i.e. Thatcherism – ‘the policies and style of government associated with Margaret Thatcher’.

For linguists, the language of remembrance is a rich field. Collecting the media sound-bites used to pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher reveals a distinctive grammatical structure: noun phrases focus attention on her qualities as a leader, as a prime minister, as a ‘historical’ figure and as a woman; the pre- and post-modification allows contributors to express their attitude.

So where to start?

Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister800px-Margaret_Thatcher_near_helicopter

a remarkable Prime Minister   

John Major, former Prime Minister (Conservative)

a truly formidable Prime Minister

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (Scottish National Party)

… Prime Minister for a long time. Honour that. 

Clare Short, former International Development Secretary (Labour)

the most rottenest Prime Minister ever

Member of the public

These noun phrases tell us as much about the contributors as they do about Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative John Major uses the positive evaluative adjective remarkable (denotation: deserving of notice or comment – and thus striking or singular),  while the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond chooses formidable (denotation: causing fear or alarm; inspiring dread or apprehension). At first glance, this adjective appears to be positive, and yet has layers of meaning which undercut our initial impression – intensified by the adverb of degree truly, the implicitly negative effect is amplified.

The member of the public is more explicit – he does not need to dress his attitude in respectful tones. The double superlative (most rottenest) and the emphatic adverb ever clearly indicate that this voter is not a Conservative supporter. The Labour MP Clare Short opts to comment on Thatcher’s length of service in the post-modifying  prepositional phrase for a long time. This allows her to side-step the need to reflect positively on a controversial right wing Prime Minister. Her imperative (Honour that.), however, implicitly suggests that there is nothing else worth praising.

Margaret  Thatcher as a leader

Margaret_Thatcher_1983   a strong leader

David Cameron, Prime Minister (Conservative)

  a fearless leader

Bill Clinton, former President of the US (Democrat)

an inspirational leader who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world

George W. Bush, former President of the US (Republican)

a great leader

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (right wing Likud party)

We may expect comments about leadership to be less party-political, but the positive pre-modifying adjectives strong and great are chosen by people who will, at least to some extent, share Thatcher’s right wing principles. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, describes her using the broad evaluative adjective fearless. Because  its connotations depend on context, this adjective is ambiguous. It could seen as ‘feint praise’  – while apparently praising her decisiveness, he may also be criticising what is sometimes seen as her political ruthlessness.

The tone of the long pre- and post-modified noun phrase is very positive. The connotations of the adjective inspirational and the abstract nouns principle, confidence and clarity explicitly suggest  that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities are exceptional. As a Republican, George W. Bush can identify with Thatcher’s right wing politics. 

Margaret Thatcher as a figureheadThatcher_reviews_troops_(cropped)

a towering political figure

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister (Labour)

a unique figure

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition (Labour)

a landmark political figure

Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

The contributors here do not share Thatcher’s political views and while their comments are respectful, they lack the effusive tone of George W. Bush. The pre-modifiers are less personal: the adjective unique, the verb modifier towering and the noun landmark suggest the scale of Thatcher’s achievements while keeping a suitable political distance. The choice of words is diplomatic.

As a woman who …

… saved the country she loved and fought for so tirelessly

Daily Mail

… tore Britain apart

Morning Star

… transformed life in this country, profoundly, permanently and through sheer force of personality

The Times

… divided a nation

Daily Mirror

… changed Britain

The Independent

Many of the newspapers used a post modified noun phrase A woman who …  to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, either as the front page headline or in the report itself.

All we need to do here is to read the verbs. In the post-modifying relative clauses, they tell a complete story. The right wing press choose past tense verbs with positive connotations – saved, transformed (reinforced in this case by the  strong connotations of the adverbs profoundly/permanently and the prepositional phrase through sheer force of personality). The left wing press choose verbs with negative connotations – tore apartdivided. The Independent, living up to its name, chooses the neutral verb changed.

As a person

478px-Margaret_Thatcher_headshot  a terrific person to spend time socially with

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury

  a very, very kindly lady

Local Conservative Party member 

a far more caring and modest person in retirement than you get from those sort of clips

Baroness Anne Jenkin of Kennington, House of Lords (Conservative)

The people who have commented on Thatcher in a more personal way are those who have a different kind of relationship – these are people who interacted with her in social contexts. The language is almost homely, describing an individual quite removed from the public ‘figurehead’. The adjectives terrific and kindly have a slightly dated feel, and there is a warm enthusiasm in Lord Carey’s choice of adjective and in the repetition of the degree adverb very. 

Baroness Jenkin bridges the gap between the two representations of Margaret Thatcher. The pre-modifiers, the comparative compound adjectives more caring and modest, mirror the warmth and familiarity of Lord Carey and the local Conservative Party lady, while the degree adverb far intensifies the positive connotationsThe post-modifying comparative clause, on the other hand, sets personal experience against media representation – it suggests that the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Lady Jenkin knew was not the same as the one the media dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the ‘Milk-Snatcher’.

Amongst the praise and celebration, the diplomacy and the delicately worded epithets, there were some explicitly negative responses. These were, however, not noun phrases that commented directly on Margaret Thatcher as a politician or as a private individual. Recognising that her family will be grieving, the criticisms focus instead on Thatcher’s record, on the political legacy she left behind. For Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, her time in 10 Downing Street was an unmitigated disaster; for a resident in her old Finchley constituency, she destroyed the infrastructure of our society and created a consumer-based generation; for the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, she did great hurt to Irish people.        

When a public figure dies, particularly in the case of a politician like Margaret Thatcher who evokes such strong emotions, a private and personal loss becomes public property. What we can see in the examples quoted here are people paying tribute to the life of someone they admire, people treading a delicate line between political judgement and diplomatic reflection, and people rejoicing in a friendship.

Some useful links for further language study: 

[I should perhaps point out that the ‘readings’ expressed here are my own and that the people cited have in no way endorsed my interpretation of their words.]

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That’s not what I meant at all …

… it was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context …

Hilary Mantel, interview on “Night Waves”, Radio 3 (Thursday 7 March)

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, found herself at the centre of a media frenzy when ‘sound-bites’ were taken from her 5,500 word lecture and published in the daily newspapers.610px-Holt_Renfrew_Mannequins

a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung

a shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own, defined entirely
by what she wore

a mother-to-be

her only point and purpose being to give birth

These noun phrases were splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Her comments were described as “an extraordinary and venomous attack” by the Daily Mail; as “misguided … wrong”  by David Cameron ; as “pretty offensive” by Ed Miliband. What no-one bothered to do, however, was to look at the phrases in context.

Mantel’s lecture, ‘Undressing Anne Boleyn’, was the first of the Winter Lecture series organised by the London Review of Books. We 505px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Anne_Boleyncan see immediately that the context was formal and academic (the lecture took place in the British Museum). Her content focuses on royal bodies: the appearance, the role and perceptions of royal women. And this too is formal and academic, setting the modern against the historical, the personal against the public. Her lexical choices and her tone are appropriate – there is no evidence that she intended to challenge the linguistic expectations of her audience, purpose and context by making a malicious attack on a public figure. 

Out of context, the complex noun phrases may seem judgemental.  In context, it is clear that this was an appeal for clemency rather than a direct criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was an analysis of the ways in which the press and public opinion shape the way we think about the Royal Family rather than a deliberate act of discourtesy.

For anyone who reads carefully, these widely publicised noun phrases reflect Mantel’s central argument.  They represent the perceptions created by the media – they are the masks imposed upon a royal wife. The head words doll and mannequin emphasise the passive role Kate Middleton is expected to play, smiling sweetly, or picking up a hockey stick and obligingly running a few paces.  The imagery is pitch-perfect: the media analyse her clothes, her body shape (is she thinner? is her ‘bump’ making her ‘radiant’?), but we never hear what she thinks. She is presented to us by the press as a puppet … her personality irrelevant. 

Mantel is a skilled craftsman. Her words are chosen precisely and her effect is considered. We can see this in the complexity of the noun phrase structure. Each example here contains a modifying clause (relative: on which certain rags are hung; non-finite: defined by what she woreto-bebeing to give birth) which provides additional information. This information is crucial to the image represented by the head word. References to clothing and to the absence of personality reinforce the general point Mantel is making  in her lecture about media representation:718px-PAUL_DELAROCHE_-_Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)

We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them.   

Her text is a skilful and intelligent piece about the power of the media to shape public attitudes.  If the phrases quoted above are to be understood as their author intended them – go to the original and see them in context!

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Interim – the power of a word

Rafael Benitez is unhappy with his title. In a speech after Chelsea had beaten13455754401401239785Manager Between Chair and Desk.svg.med Middlesbrough 2-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Benitez objected to being called “interim manager”. So why is “interim manager” linguistically and semantically so different from “manager”?

In structure, both are noun phrases, but the pre-modifying adjective “interim” alters our response to the head noun.  This is the power of pre-modification – it affects the way we interpret the noun that follows.

The meaning of the adjective appears to undermine the authoritative connotations of “manager” in this context.  For Benitez, it makes his role seem less important because it suggests that he is only transitional, temporary – a stand-in until someone else (someone better or more suitable?) can be appointed.

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To pre- or post-modify, that is the question …

sleeping-baby-md

On Radio 4’s The Archers, one of the characters was expecting a baby … Someone described her baby as ‘a Down’s Syndrome baby’ and she insisted she was having ‘a baby with Down’s Syndrome’. Can you see the semantic difference?

At a level of language, we can describe the two structures very differently. The first is a pre-modified noun phrase: the head word ‘baby’ is at the end of the phrase and we therefore first register the condition. The second is a post-modified noun phrase: the noun ‘baby’ comes first with the condition as a qualifier (in the form of a prepositional phrase).

The order of information in a phrase is important because it affects the way we respond. In this case, the character was drawing attention to the fact that her baby would not be defined by her condition – that she was a baby first and that her condition was just one element of who she would be.

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