Tag Archives: noun 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.


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]


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

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


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.


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.


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


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 .


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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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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