Contrastive Analysis

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Running head: the word order in noun phrase

The Word Order in Vietnamese and English Noun Phrase:

A Contrastive Analysis

Le Huynh H a Van

4 A 06

HCMC University of Pedagogy

Contrastive Analysis

Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu

December 29, 2009

The Word Order in Vietnamese and English Noun Phrase:

A Contrastive Analysis


Once I was doing the assignment my teacher gave me, I came across this title on the webpage “How many ways can we say the sentence, “Sao bảo nó không đến?” By jumbling the order of only five words “sao”, “bảo”, “nó”, “không”, “đến”, we can make various sentences with different meanings such as “Sao không bảo nó đến”, “Bảo sao nó không đến”, or “Sao không đến bảo nó”,etc. At that time, one question came into my mind, “Can we do the same in English, by changing the word order?” This interesting idea encourages me to find out similarities and differences of word order in English and in Vietnamese. Within this paper, I focus on contrasting and analyzing English and Vietnamese word order in noun phrase. Then, some implications for language teaching will be discussed in the second part. I hope that the information in this paper will be useful to Vietnamese learners in their language learning as well as in reducing problems in translation.

The general order in a noun phrase

Basically, a phrase, according to Nguyen (2004), consists of three main parts: specifier, head and complement. Expressing the main meaning of a phrase, the head may be a noun, a verb, an adjective or a preposition, etc. On the left of the head is the specifier. Specifier including determiners, auxiliaries, and degree verbs helps express the main meaning of a phrase more exactly. The complement is attached to the right of the head, providing information about entices and locations of the head. This order is clearly illustrated in the following figure: (pp. 22-26)


Specifier X Complement


X stands for N, V, A, or P

Figure 1: The phrase structure template

E.g: a story about the paternal love.

Specifier Head Complement

Similarly, Mai, Vu & Hoang (2006) stated that the general order of a basic phrase is pre-modification (phần phụ trước) – head (phần trung tâm) – post-modification (phần phụ sau) (p.275). For instance, the verb phrase “Đã lấy chồng” has the verb “lấy” as the head, “đã” as pre-modification and “chồng” as post-modification.

Both Nguyen (2004) and Mai et al. (2006) define a noun phrase as “a group of words with a noun or pronoun as the main part” (Head) (Nguyen 41). Jackson (1980) added that the noun or pronoun is “the minimal requirement for the occurrence of a noun phrase. The other two parts such as pre-modification, post-modification are optionally occurring” (p.12). Therefore, the order of a noun phrase in English and Vietnamese can be generalized like this:

Pre-modification + Head + post-modification

(1) (2) (3)

E.g: a/ that lovely new dress of Jack

1 2 3
b/ The floating market in Can Tho

1 2 3

c/ The thin woman, old and weak, is slowly walking on the road.

1 2 3

d/ The beautiful doll that my daughter has maimed

1 2 3

e/ George Washington is the first person to be appointed as the president of the U.S.A.

1 2 3

f/ Những bông hoa đỏ thắm trong vườn Bác

1 2 3

g/ Tất cả những con tắc kè màu xanh màu đỏ ấy

1 2 3

h/ Ba con mèo nhỏ xíu đáng yêu

1 2 3

Word order in English noun phrase

As we can see in the example above, pre-modification and post-modification may contain other elements. That creates differences between the word order in English and Vietnamese. Basing on the theory of noun phrase of Howard Jackson (1980, pp.12-16) and Nguyen Hoa Lac (2004, pp. 41-52), we can arrange those elements of an English noun phrase into details as in the following table:




(central determiner)




Adjective modifiers


Noun modifiers


Head noun


Post –modifiers


-Quantifier (all, both, half)

-Fraction numeral (one-third)

-Article (a, the)

-Demonstrative (this, that)

-Possessive (my, his…)

-noun phrase in genitive case ( this gentlemen’s bowler hat)

-Numeral (first, second, four, five)


(few, several)

-The order of Adjective:

+epithet (charming)

+size (small)


+age (old)

+color( blue)



+present participle


E.g: a country garden

-the village policemen

-the news agency

-the child safety harness…

-Noun (man, cat)

-Personal pronoun (they, he)

-Possessive pronoun (mine, theirs)

-Indefinite pronoun (None)

-wh-word (who)

-Relative clauses

-Non-finite clauses (to infinitive, present participle, past participle)

- Prepositional phrases.



-appositive noun phrases

Table 1: The word order in English noun phrase

Here are some illustrations for the order in the table above:

a. One-third of the lazy students

a b d f

b.The first few hours

b c c f

c. The second five days

b c c f

d. Several thousand people

c c f

In the examples above, we see that the elements in post-determiner can combine with each other. However, they aren’t arbitrarily combined but obey a definite rule: ordinal numeral +indefinite (the first few hours), ordinal + cardinal (the second five days), indefinite quantifier + cardinal numeral (several thousand people) (Nguyen, 2004, p. 44).

f. A charming small round old brown French oaken writing desk

b epithet size shape age color origin material p.p f

g. The company engineer

b e f

h. This delightful old gentleman’s scruffy bowler hat

Noun phrase genitive d e f

i. The man who came here yesterday

b f g (relative clause)

j. This will be a day to remember.

b f g (non-finite clause: to –inf.)

k. the beautiful girl standing by the window

b d f g (non-finite clause: present participle)

l. …the greatest masterpiece written by Ernest Hemingway

b d f g (non-finite clause: past participle)

m. The mysterious sight in Sapa

b d f g (prepositional phrase)

n. a girl good at literature

b f g (adj phrase)

o. The day before the storm

b f g (adv)

p. Barrack Obama, the incumbent president,

f g (appositive noun phrases)

Word order in Vietnamese noun phrase

Besides, according to Mai et al.’s theory (pp. 276-280) as well as the article written by Dinh Dien (n.d, p.6), the word order in Vietnamese noun phrase can be summarized like this:

Tất cả



con mèo






Head noun (0)



Table 2: The word order in Vietnamese noun phrase

In fact, the position of those elements in a noun phrase is rather stable. According to Dinh Dien (n.d), the head (position 0) may be a noun (mèo, sách, sinh viên) or a combination of a classifier (danh từ chỉ loại) and the main noun like “con mèo, cuốn sách”. Otherwise, the head may also a classifier followed by a descriptive free word cluster (cụm từ tự do miêu tả) (position 1) such as “hai anh đang ngồi đọc sách đằng kia”, “ những việc nói hôm nọ.” In addition, words that are not noun can also be the head due to speaking habits of Vietnamese. For instance, the phrases like “ba sôi”, “hai lạnh” is the shortened speaking way of “ba phần nước sôi”, “hai phần nước lạnh.” (p. 7)

According to Diep Quang Ban (2000), the position (-1) is taken by the deictic word “cái” (từ chỉ xuất). Usually, standing after “cái” and the head noun is demonstrative like “này”, “kia”, “ấy”, etc. However, people can speak “ mấy cái thằng….” or “cái con bé…” instead of “mấy cái thằng kia” , “cái con bé ấy” in conversational language with people from the same or lower status. It means the demonstratives “ấy, kia” are omitted though “cái” is used (p. 46).

Diep Quang Ban (2000) added that (-2) is the place taken by one of these: numeral (một, hai, bốn, mười…), indefinite quantifier (vài, ba, dăm, mươi…), allocating words (từ hàm ý phân phối) (mỗi, từng, mọi …), articles (quán từ: những, các, một…) and the word “mấy” (p. 47). Besides, we don’t attach words like “mỗi, từng, mọi, các” with “cái” (-1) as “các cái con mèo”, “các cái cuốn sách”, “Mỗi cái người chúng ta”… Similarly, we can say “hai vợ chồng, bốn anh em” but can’t say “bốn xe cộ, năm áo quần”. It means numerals can be placed in front of generic nouns (danh từ tổng hợp) which refer to familial relationships. Yet, only in the order “numeral + quantitative words + generic nouns” can generic nouns stand right after numeral as in “hai bộ quần áo”, “năm đàn trâu bò”. In contrast, “những, các, mọi” can stand directly before generic nouns: “những thợ thuyền, các tướng tá, mọi xe cộ” (Mai et al., 2006, p. 278).

The position (-3) is that of quantifiers (“từ tổng lượng) such as “tất cả”, “tất thảy”, “hết thảy”… These words can combine with definite numerals ( “một”, “hai”, “ba”, “bốn”…), quantitative words (“đàn”, “lũ”, “bộ”, “bó”, “nắm”…), generic nouns ( “quần áo”, “binh lính”, “xe cộ”, “máy móc”…) (Diep,2000, p. 53). Take these following noun phrases as examples:

a/ Cả một đàn thế mà bảo ít

Quantifier numeral quantitative word head post- modification

b/ Toàn bộ năm mươi mấy người trai tráng, thế mà nay … (không còn một ai)

Quantifier numeral head

c/ Tất cả kỉ niệm đáng nhớđó

Quantifier generic noun post- modification

Subsequent to the head is the position (1) which belongs to words of various parts of speech like noun, adjective, verb, numeral, ordinal, pronoun or clusters having principal and accessory (cụm chính phụ), coordinated (cụm đẳng lập) or Subject and verb relationship (cụm chủ vị). The main function of words in this position is to highlight or point out the characteristics of the head noun. For example:

a/ Phòng tạp chí

head noun

b/ phòng đọc

head verb

c/ phòng hẹp

head qualitative adj

d/ phòng m ười bốn

head ordinal

e/ cửa hàng sách ngoại văn

head principal and accessory

f/ sách báo trong và ngoài nước

head coordinated cluster

g/ sách báo thư viện đặt mua

head subject-verb cluster

(Diep, 2000,p. 58)

However, the position (1) can have more than two elements appearing at the same time and this raises a question of the order of these elements: which comes first? Which comes after? Giving the answer to this, Diep Quang Ban (2000) remarked that those elements which describing the frequent nature of the head noun will be placed closer to the head than those which just highlight the temporary characteristics of the head in some particular situations. Besides, if all the elements outline temporary characteristics of the head, the order among them will give priority to one-word element (noun, verb or adjective). Then come the longer elements like numerals, words indicating positions, or word clusters (p. 60). In other words, the shorter modifiers come first, then the longer ones come next. To make it clearer, we may outline the order like this:

Head + Frequent nature + temporary characteristics 1+ temporary characteristics 2
One word word cluster

(Noun, verb, adj)

Figure 2: The order of elements in the position (1) of a Vietnamese noun phrase

Here are some examples to illustrate for the rule stated above:

Con đường đất đỏ lầy lội

Head adj (frequent nature) adj (temporary characteristic)

As we can see, “đất đỏ” in the example above is the frequent nature of “con đường”, but due to the heavy rain today, the street becomes “lầy lội”. Consequently, “lầy lội” is the temporary characteristic of “con đường” in a particular case “trời mưa”.

Bài học đầu tiên về cách làm người

Head numeral principal and accessory cluster

Đường đua số 2 ở trước mặt (Diep, 2000, p. 60)

Head numeral word cluster indicating position

The last position, number 2, in a Vietnamese noun phrase is that of demonstratives (ấy, đó, này, kia, nọ, đấy, đó). These words are used for identifying which objects or which subjects are being mentioned. It also signals the end of a Vietnamese noun phrase. For example:

Những cô nàng đỏm dáng ấy

Article head qualitative adj demonstrative

In some cases, demonstrative may cause misunderstandings if we arrange the order in different ways. Compare these two phrases:

(a) Việc ấy của anh (b) Việc của anh ấy (Diep 61)

While the example (a) emphasizes clearly “that work”, (b) is quite ambiguous. On one hand, we can understand it as “his work” when speaking with a flat tone. On the other hand, (b) can be understood that “It’s your work, not others’ work” by raising the accent at “ẤY”.
Compare and contrast the word order of noun phrase between Vietnamese and English

Through descriptions of the basic order of the noun phrase in English and Vietnamese above, I would like to point out some remarkable similarities and differences in the positions of pre-modifiers and post modifier in relation to the head noun.

Firstly, in both Vietnamese and English noun phrase, quantitative modifiers (định ngữ chỉ lượng) lie before the head noun, which is followed by the prepositional phrases. For example:

a/ All those beautiful dreams

Quantifier demonstrative adjective head noun

Tất cả những giấc mộng đẹp đó

Quantifier article head noun adj demonstrative

b/ One third of my students

Fraction possessive head noun

Một phần ba số học sinh của tôi

Fraction head possessive

c/ Three little lizards Ba con thằn lằn con

Numeral adj head numeral head adj

d/ Several thousand people Vài ngàn người

Numeral head numeral head

e/ All fresh flowers in Uncle Ho’s garden

quantifier adj head prepositional phrase

Tất cả bông hoa tươi thắm trong vườn Bác

Quantifier head adj prepositional phrase

Secondly, while coming before the head noun in English, demonstratives, ordinal numbers, possessives follow the head noun in Vietnamese. For example:

a/ That beautiful orange checked shirt Cái áo sơ mi ca-rô cam xinh xắn đó

Demonstrative demonstrative

b/ The second romantic date in the cinema Buổi hẹn hò lãng mạn thứ hai ở rạp phim

Ordinal number ordinal number

c/ My little angel Thiên thần bé bỏng của tôi

Possessive Possessive

Thirdly and especially, most of adjectives precede the head noun of a noun phrase in English but in Vietnamese, the order is reversed, that is, qualitative adjectives come after the head noun in Vietnamese. For instances:

a/ A noble deed Một hành động cao thượng

Article adj head numeral head adj

b/ Delicate little swallows Những cánh én bé nhỏ mỏng manh

Adj head article head adj

In reality, there are some situations in which adjectives come after the head noun in English, and I think it’s the reduction of a relative clause whose position is after the head noun.

a/ Do you notice something strange today? (Do you notice something that is strange to day?)

b/ I really admire women graceful and courage. (I really admire women who are graceful and courage).

In addition, the order among adjective modifiers (epithet, size, shape, age, color, origin, substance, present participle) in English is rather fixed whereas adjective modifiers may be exchanged their positions for each other in Vietnamese, basing on what characteristics the speaker wants to emphasize first. For example, the structure of “a pretty blue skirt” is firm in English, but in Vietnamese, people can say “một chiếc váy màu xanh da trời xinh xắn” or “một chiếc váy xinh xắn màu xanh da trời”. Both ways of speaking are okay. The former has more focus on the color (blue) of the skirt while the latter stresses on the beauty (pretty) of it. This means in Vietnamese noun phrase, the more important characteristics will be placed closer the head noun on the right than other elements.

Similarly, in English, noun modifiers come before the head noun, but in Vietnamese, they come after the head.

a/ A tennis club Một câu lạc bộ quần vợt

b/ A plastic bag Một cái cặp nhựa

c/ A summer holiday Một kì nghỉ hè

Nevertheless, in some cases in Vietnamese, noun modifiers precedes the head noun as in Sino-Vietnamese phrases.

a/ A poet một thi nhân

b/ A chess player một cờ thủ

In sum, although the general structure of a noun phrase in both languages are the same (pre-modification-head-post modification), there are some differences in the order of factors in pre- and post-modifiers. Logical thought may account for these dissimilarities. What comes into people’s mind first is spoken first is the common rule of Vietnamese, which is also a natural order of people’s logical thinking (Dinh, n.d, p. 11). Take the noun phrase “an old Korean leather wallet” as an example; the first thing we realize is that it’s a wallet. So, “cái ví” comes first in Vietnamese noun phrase. Then, we may notice that wallet is old and made of leather. If we do pay attention to the “old” characteristic, we mention it first. Otherwise, “leather” characteristic is spoken first. Therefore, we have some variants such as “một cái ví Hàn Quốc bằng da cũ kỹ”, “một cái ví Hàn Quốc cũ kỹ bằng da” or “Một cái ví cũ kỹ bằng da của Hàn Quốc”. As a result, the order of Vietnamese noun phrase is quite flexible and depends on the intention of the speakers.

In contrast, the English noun phrase isn’t as free and flexible as that in Vietnamese. The positions of pre-modifiers and post-modifiers are quite fixed and nearly unchangeable. Because of this rigid principle, what we think about later is spoken first and vice versa (Dinh, n.d, p. 12). Clearly, the noun phrase “cái ví Hàn Quốc bằng da cũ kỹ của anh ấy” has only one order, that is, “his old Korean leather wallet”.

Implications in English teaching and learning

When learning English, the order of adjectives in a noun phrase often causes a headache for Vietnamese learners. Which adjective comes first? Which one will come next? Where is the right position? In fact, it’s not easy for Vietnamese students to remember that order because Vietnamese get into the habit of placing the adjective after the head noun and using them flexibly. This big difference confuses L2 learners a lot, especially those who are at the elementary level.

To solve this problem, Pham Phu Dung (2009), a Vietnamese high teacher shares a poem of his own, which he finds helpful for his students in remembering the order of the adjectives. Here is his secret:


Sở hữu, thứ tự, a, the

Số lượng, chỉ định để đầu trước tiên

Tốt xấu phải nhớ đi liền

Tiếp thời to nhỏ rồi thì new, old

Hình dạng nếu có nằm sau

Kế đến màu sắc và rồi quốc gia

Chất liệu, sắt thép… làm ra

Để ngay phía trước danh ta muốn làm

In reality, we hardly see possessive adjectives, cardinals, ordinals, demonstratives appear simultaneously. Therefore, this poem will help students perform well reordering jumbled words exercises as well as improve writing skill.

As we know, Vietnamese people tend to tell first what come into their mind first and what comes later will be told later, which is a reverse order as compared with English. As a result, the head in Vietnamese comes first while that in English comes last. Understanding that style of mentality will help teachers figure out what obstacles the learners may encounter and guide them properly. In other words, learners should be facilitated with this difference from the beginning so that they can make the phrases or the sentences correctly and naturally. Moreover, they won’t misunderstand the meanings of tricky and confusing noun phrase. For example, when we say “ngựa đua”, “ngựa” is the main factor and comes first. If our learners just translate it directly in English, word-by- word, we will have “horse race”, which has a different meaning (the race of horses). In this case, “race horse” is the correct translation in spite of having a reverse order. Realizing this dissimilar feature, students may find it easier to study English and have an overview about the standard grammar from the beginning.

The knowledge of word order is also useful for learners when they do exercises on mistake correction. Which of articles and ordinal number, ordinal number and cardinal, etc. comes first is also one of the common things students often see in their examination in high school as well as national examination. For example, let’s find one mistake in these following sentences and correct them:

  1. The three last days are the happiest days.


b. The my lovely little black cat doesn’t know how to catch mice.


c. This is a American terrific television comedy.


d. Does that American handsome fat man see anything strange and unusual?


Four examples above illustrate clearly how teachers may use word order in a noun phrase to check students’ knowledge. In sentence (a), B is the mistake and can be corrected as “last three”, not “three last” because ordinal numbers come before cardinal numbers. Like sentence (a), (b) has “the” as a redundant element because “the” and “my” (possessive adjective) don’t come together in the same context. Hence, we just omit “the” to have the correct answer. In addition, sentence (c) checks students’ knowledge of the order of adjective. Certainly, C is the mistake and we change it into “terrific American” instead of “American terrific”. However, sometimes students may be cheated when they catch sight of the adjectives that stand right after the head noun and believe confidently that is wrong as in (d). At first sight, students may choose D as their best answer because they are taught that adjectives stand in front of the noun and then have a wrong choice. In contrast, if they know the adjective may come after the noun as a result of relative clause reduction (anything that is strange and unusual), they won’t make that mistake.

So, in (d), B is wrong and corrected as “handsome fat American man” instead of “American handsome fat man”.

General speaking, teacher can base on the knowledge of word order to design tasks for students and students will have chances to consolidate and practice their knowledge of structure in phrases and sentences.

One more benefit of the word order in noun phrase is found out in teaching reading skill, especially in TOEFL and IELTS. When facing a very long and incomprehensible noun phrase such as “the gorgeous giant spiral ancient reddish brick citadel named Co Loa”, learners are surely puzzled and dizzy. Consequently, they can’t understand what the reading text is about. In contrast, if teachers notice this and tell learners to leave out the sub-parts comes before (the gorgeous giant spiral ancient reddish brick) as well as after (named Co Loa), then focus mainly on the head “citadel”. By this way, the phrase will become simpler and students can understand what is mentioned in the reading text. It is significant; thus, for students to know where the head noun is and its modifiers in a noun phrase.


In conclusion, although noun phrase in English and Vietnamese has the same general structure, that is, pre-mod., head, post-head. , they are unlike in the order of pre-modifiers and post –modifiers in particular. In English, articles, demonstratives, possessives, ordinal numbers, adjectives, noun modifiers come before the head noun while those same elements come after in Vietnamese. Despite that, sometimes adjectives may lies after the head noun and the noun modifiers may come before the head in Vietnamese as mentioned above. This dissimilarity results from differences in logical thinking of the two cultures. Simple as these things are, they‘re very helpful for teachers and learners. Because English teaching and learning in Vietnamese high schools emphasizes on the exactness of grammar, this research will help me, a teacher-to-be, have a stable knowledge of English structure to retransmit it to my future students correctly. As for students, knowing dissimilarities and similarities in the word order between the two languages lead them to be more confident in writing and in communication, to form a natural and quick reflex in speaking and thinking in English and overcome the difficulties they may encounter in English learning.


Diep, Quang Ban. (2000). Ngu phap tieng Viet. Ho Chi Minh city: Education Publishing House.

Dinh, Dien. (n.d.). So sanh trat tu tu cua dinh ngu giua tieng Anh va tieng Viet. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from

Jackson, Howard. (1980). Analyzing English. England: Pergamond Institute of English

Mai, N.C., Vu, D.N., & Hoang, T.P. (2006). Co so ngon ngu hoc va tieng Viet. Ho Chi Minh city: Education Publishing House.

Nguyen, Hoa Lac. (2004). An outline of syntax. Ho Chi Minh city: HCMC Publishing House.

.Pham, Phu Dung (2009). Some experiences in teaching the order of adjectives of the English language effectively. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from

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