English and Vietnamese noun phrases Running head: english and vietnamese noun phrase

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English and Vietnamese Noun Phrase: A Contrastive Analysis

Tuyen Ngoc Thi Le

University of Education

Contrastive Analysis

Instructor: Ths. Nguyen Ngoc Vu

December 30, 2009


The aim of this paper is to discuss the English and Vietnamese noun phrases and their impact upon teaching and learning English in Vietnamese situation. It is hoped that this contrastive analysis will provide as much information as possible on English and Vietnamese noun phrases. With the practical aims, it attempts to state the similarities and differences in noun phrases of the two languages in term of their internal and external structures. The study draws attention to the analysis of the heads of noun phrases in the two languages, the pre and post modifications, their positions and functions of English and Vietnamese noun phrase. Finally, some teaching implications are made for those who teach English as a Foreign Language to their students. At the same time, some kinds of error made by Vietnamese learners due to differences in word order and functions of noun phrases between the two languages will be discussed.


Language is a powerful means of communication of everyone in the world. However, each language has each own way of expressing and denominating things. Every noun, verb, adjective, adverb or other categories that we use to make up our speech has its own ways from which they are coordinated. Noun phrase, one of the major sentence constituent in a large number of languages, is not an exception. A noun phrase (NP) is a phrase whose head is a noun or a pronoun, optionally accompanied by a set of modifiers. As a result, there are differences in constituent ordering within the noun phrase between English and Vietnamese- the head initial language. This study aims to explore internal and external structure of English and Vietnamese noun phrases then some errors due to differences in word order and functions of noun phrases between the two languages as well as some teaching implications will be discussed. Through a contrastive view in this research, I hope that it will make readers clear about the similarities and differences of English and Vietnamese noun phrases in term of their internal and external structure so that they can avoid making mistakes in their translation between these two languages.

English noun phrase:

According to L. H. Nguyen (2004), a noun phrase is a group of words with a noun or pronoun as a main part (the head). The noun may only consist of a one word as in (a) or it may be long and complex as in (b)

        1. Lan, Hoa

        2. The cats that I bought yesterday.

English noun phrase elements:

The functional formula of a English noun phrase may be consist of 4 following elements in this order: Determiner – Pre modification- Head noun- Post modification

  1. Determiner: “Noun rarely stand alone, they are usually accompanied by modifiers. The most common noun modifier in English is determiners” (Berk, 1990) which determine the reference of the noun phrase in its linguistic or situational context. A determiner is an optional element in a noun phrase that occurs at the front most position in a noun phrase. Depending on their relative position before a noun, we distinguish three classes of determiners. Pre determiner, Central Determiner, Post determiner.

I meet [all my many friends]

[Pre-central-post- Noun]

  1. Central determiners: Central determiners include a number of different kinds of word: articles (a, an, the), possessives or genitives (his, her, your), demonstratives (this, that, these, those), interrogatives (which, what).They are initial positions in a noun phrase (if there is no pre determiner) and occupy the same position in a noun phrase. Those determiners always precede both the noun and any adjective. Moreover, they indicate the kind of reference which the nouns have. For example,

Several new dresses

A profound book

The words in the determiner category are mutual exclusive so nouns can be modified by only one term from this class. In case there is co-occurrence of an article or a demonstrative and a possessive in a noun phrase, we normally “need to construct an of-phrase with the possessive pronoun”

The friends of mine

Possessive determiner and “the” can precede either plural or singular noun whereas “a, this, that” and stressed some modify singular noun, and unstressed some, these, those modify only plural noun. (Berk, 1990) as illustrated below

His book, her books, the book, the books

A book, this book, that book, SOME book

Some books, those books, these books

1.1 Articles: articles tend to attach themselves to nouns that refer to physical entities. When words are used to refer to an abstract institution, the articles are often omitted whereas the use of an appropriate article is necessary when words refer to concrete entities.

“a” and “an” are singular indefinite article, used to introduce a NP into the discourse as in

“There are a man and a woman”

“some” is plural indefinite article. “Some” is also used with non countable noun.

Some of my friends

Give me some water

“The” occur in a noun phrase if the items have been mentioned before. It is used before definite plural or singular noun

All the books

The books she gives me

1.2 Possessives (genitives): my, own, his, her

These words are called determiners if only they precede a head noun

I dislike his brothers

They can occur with any kinds of noun thus are not restricted with the regard to the countability and number of the head noun.

1. 3 Demonstratives: Function of demonstratives is to point items out as in “this book”

Demonstratives reflect a quality called deixis. We have three kinds of deixis: person, temporal, and spatial (typical). For example, if we want to point out something that is close to us, we use “this” and something far, we use “that” as illustrated below.

This new dress

That fierce dog

1. 4 Interrogatives: typical begin with the letter Wh. For example,

Which child teased the dog?

Which and what have s slight difference, “Which” is used when options are clear.

  1. Pre determiners: central determiners may be preceded by pre determiners. They specify quantity in the noun which follows them, and they are of three major types: quantifiers, multipliers, fractions.

All, both, half are considered pre determiners if they directly precede the determiners or the nouns.

2.1. Multipliers include expressions ending in times:  Twice my salary, ten times my salary

2. 2 Fractions: half my salary, one-third my salary

  1. 3. quantifiers: all and both
     all my salary 
    both my salaries

“Many have to use of plus an article or demonstrative to be linked to definite noun. For others of phrase is optional” (Jacobs, 1995). For example,

Several of the books: definite

Several books: indefinite

 Pre determiners do not normally co-occur:   

*all half my salary is ungrammatical in English

  1. Post determiners: are group of words that follows central determiner but it must precede all adjective. They include quantifiers and cardinal, ordinal numbers.

Cardinal and ordinal number express specific quantity as in

The two children

his fourth birthday

Cardinal number often occurs without a preceding determiner as in “two books”

Quantifiers like many, little, few express non specific quantity.

My several books

those few people left

Quantifiers like much, little only occur with uncountable noun

The little money

 This applies also to general ordinals:   

our last race
your previous work
Unlike pre determiners, post determiners can co-occur, however there are only certain combinations acceptable.

  1. Ordinal numeral- indefinite quantifiers

The first few students

  1. Ordinal – cardinal

The first three books

  1. Indefinite quantifiers- cardinal number

Several hundred people

  1. Pre modifier:

Pre modifiers are placed before the head includes: nouns, adjective phrases and participle phrases.

  1. Noun modifier

Sometimes, we may use a noun to modify head noun.

Eg: Love story, bamboo village

We frequently use a noun modifier when we want to talk about the quality, characteristics of the head noun as in “plastics table”

This construction is sometimes called noun- noun compound or noun –noun combination.

Where there is an adjective in an English noun phrase, it stands between the head noun and adjective.

Eg: Some interesting children books

  1. Adjective modifier is an optional element. Where the adjective is used in an English noun phrase, it appears after determiners and its function is “to amplify or describe the head noun, to highlight some quantities of the noun”(L. H. Nguyen, 2004)

Several mystery books

We can use more than one adjective to modify the head noun and these adjectives must follow the certain order

epithet- size- shape- age- color- origin- substance- present participle used a an adjective as in “ a lovely small round modern Swiss gold watch”

  1. Participle phrase:

Adjectives are also formed from past and present participle. When a noun is modified by a present participle, the state being described is on progress as in “the ringing bells awaken everyone” whereas, if a past participle follows a noun, the state being described is resultant. For example, a stolen necklace is returned to its owner.

  1. Post modifier:

Post modifiers are placed after the head includes prepositional phrases, relative clauses, non finite clauses and complementation.

  1. Prepositional phrase:

They are frequently post modifiers in a noun phrase.

When will I meet the girl of my dream?

  1. Relative clause:

After the head noun, we can use a relative clause as a noun modifier.

In relative clause, relative pronouns which refer back to the head noun of the noun phrase, occur as post modifiers

Some children books that I have ever read

The relative pronoun may be the subject or object of the relative clause. In case they are objects of the relative clauses, we may sometimes omit the relative pronouns.

The girl I talked to yesterday is my best friend.

If there is a superlative comparison in a noun phrase as a pre modifier, we will normally begin the relative clause with ‘that” and in some cases we can omit it

She is the most beautiful girl (that) I have ever met

  1. non finite clauses

Non finite clauses may function as post modifiers and there are three kinds of them:

    • Present participle clause. Eg: the dog sparking the thief

    • Past participle clause. Eg: the girl shocked by the news

    • Infinitive clause. Eg: a plan to catch a mouse:

In present participle and past participle, the head of the noun phrase is the implied subject.

  1. Adjective and adverbial clauses:

An adjective or adverbial clause may follow the head noun as a modifier for the head noun as illustrated below, respectively.

We don’t talk to the people upstairs

I saw her face full of tears

  1. Complementation. It helps to make clearer the head noun.

A more intelligent girl than I

  1. Head:

The head of a noun phrase may be a noun or pronoun. Without a noun, we usually cannot have a noun phrase.

A man

A strange person

What I have present above can be summarized in the below diagram.

Quantifiers (all, both, half)

Multipliers (double. twice)

Fractions (one-third, one-fifth)

Pre determiner


Definite (the)

Indefinite (a, an)


Possessive (his, her, my)

Dexis (that, those)


Central determiner

Personal (my, her)

Spatial ( this, that)

Interrogative (which, what)



Cardinal (one, two, three)


Ordinal (first, second)

Post determiner

Quantifier (few, several, much)

Noun (science [as in science project])

Adjective Phrase (very big, extremely frail)

Pre modifier

Participle (nonfinite clause)

-ing Participle (winning)


Complementation (then I, then that)

Post modifier

-ed Participle (tired)

Noun (Marie, information) children)

Pronoun (I, she, they)

Prepositional phrase (in the afternoon)

Relative Clause (Who was reading that book)

Nonfinite Clause

-Ing Clause (writing a letter)

-Ed Clause (shocked by the neus)

Infinitive Clause (to see)

Adj or adv Clause


The first grammatical function of nouns and noun phrases is the subject of clauses.

The thief escaped.

The second grammatical function that nouns and noun phrases can perform is the subject complement. These complements follow a copular or linking verb such as be and become and refer back to the subject.

She is a student

Noun may function as direct and indirect object.

John gives {me} {a bar of candy.}

Direct - Indirect

Nouns may also function as objects of prepositions.

He worked as a waiter during his summer holiday.

Nouns may be Object complements which modifier the direct objects

We elected John president

Nouns may be modifiers which describe another noun or noun phrase

My friend’s dog is sick.

This comic book is interesting.

The next function I want to mention is appositive.

My Tam, a famous singer, flied to Korea yesterday

Finally, the grammatical function that noun phrases can perform is adverbial.

They have gone home.

In summary, the grammatical functions of noun phrase “namely as subjects, direct, indirect and prepositional objects, subject and object complement, modifiers and appositives. Such nominal clause can also be conjoined with others nominal clauses to form coordinated nominal clauses”. (krzeszowski, 1990). Furthermore, noun phrases can perform as adverbials.

Vietnamese noun phrase:

A noun phrase is a free combination of a noun nucleus and one or more than one subordinate elements which are of 2 types: front element (Pre-nominal modifiers) and end element (Post-nominal modifiers). (Doan, T.T., Nguyen, K. H., Pham, N. Q., 2001).

Vietnamese noun phrase elements:

According to T. H. Nguyen (2004), Vietnamese noun phrase elements in include pre-nominal modifiers (quantifiers, articles, numerals, the particle CÁI, classifiers, measure phrases) and post-nominal modifiers (noun adjuncts, adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, demonstratives, and possessives), in addition to the head noun.

  1. Pre-nominal modifiers:

  1. Classifiers: Classifiers in Vietnamese form a closed lexical class. In Vietnamese syntax, a classifier is an optional element in a noun phrase that immediately precedes the noun as in cuốn sách, cái bàn

Structurally, a classifier must follow a numeral if there are numerals in a noun phrase. Therefore, in Vietnamese it‘s grammatical to say “gà”, “con gà” or “hai con gà” but it will be ungrammatical to say “hai gà”. Classifiers cannot stand alone in a noun phrase as in “Con/ cuốn” and are used to individuate noun, thereby making them accountable as illustrated below. bàn, cái bàn

hai bàn hai cái bàn

In case, there is a demonstrative, an adjective, or a relative clause, which functions as an explicit specifying modifier, the head noun can be omitted as shown below,

Bạn muốn mua cái bàn nào?

Cái vàng hay cái xanh?

Since classifiers precede nouns, where the English structure is concerned, classifier choice is dependent on the semantic features of the classified nouns. They are often compatible with respect to the three-way animacy-based distinction of the head nouns with which they can co-occur. In other words, classifiers such as cái, con, người require a certain animacy value as inanimate objects, animals, and people, respectively.

Among the most common Vietnamese classifiers are:

  • cái : used for most inanimate objects

  • chiếc: almost similar to cái, usually more connotative (e.g. when referring to a cute object, chiếc might be more suitable than cái)

  • con: usually for animals and children, but can be used to describe some inanimate objects (con dao = knife, con đường = street)

  • bài: used for compositions like songs, drawings, poems, essays, etc.

  • câu: sentential constructs (verses, lyrics, statements, quotes, etc.)

  • cây: used for stick-like objects (plants, guns, canes, etc.)

  • tòa: buildings of authority: courts, halls, "ivory towers".

  • quả/trái: used for globular objects (the Earth, fruits)

  • quyển/cuốn: used for book-like objects (books, journals, etc.)

  • tờ: sheets and other thin objects made of paper (newspapers, papers, calendars, etc.)

  • : smaller sheets of paper (letters, playing cards)

  • việc: an event or an ongoing process

  • chuyện: a general topic, matter, or business

In case, there is no compatibility between the classifiers and the head noun, the ungrammaticality will be result. Furthermore, two classifiers cannot co-occur in the same noun phrase as illustrated follow

Grammatical: cái bàn, con gà, người hàng xóm

Ungrammatical: con bàn, cái gà, cái hàng xóm

Ungrammatical: cái con bàn, con cái nhà

As I mentioned above, classifiers can individuate nouns, making it countable as a unit. They are called unit-classifiers ( cái, con). There are also others types of classifier denoting kinds or events called kind-classifiers as in (1a) and event-classifiers as in(1b).

(1a) loại sách, thứ chanh

(1b) cuộc họp, trận mưa

The three types of classifier are all in the classifier category and of course share the characteristics of a classifier in term of their distribution restriction and position in a noun phrase. Not only can they not co-occur with other classifiers of the same type as in (2a), they cannot occur with other types of classifiers as in (2b) either.

(2a) Loai thứ sách:

(2b)Lọai con gà:

Because Vietnamese nouns are unmarked for number, a bare noun can have several interpretations such as singular, plural, definite or indefinite. However, where there is a classifier precedes a noun, this noun phrase is apparently considered singular with either definite or indefinite reading as in

“tôi mua cuốn sách

I buy a/the CL book

While a [một-CL-N] explicitly marks the NP as singular with indefinite reading only as in

“tôi mua một cuốn sách”.

To form a plural noun phrase, it’s obligatory to add “các, những” before CL-N as in “những con gà” “ các cuốn sách”

  1. Articles: Most researchers argue that there are no lexical articles in Vietnamese. In fact, Vietnamese has a class of lexical articles. According to T. C.Nguyen. (1975), “một”, “những”, “các” are articles in Vietnamese. Where classifiers are used, articles must precede the classifiers and the head noun as in “ các con gà”

Art- CL-N

The article một is also an optional element in Vietnamese noun phrase and precedes the head noun but where there is the presence of this article, it carries a singular and indefinite interpretation as in “tôi mua một con gà”

It’s normally used in Vietnamese noun phrases for the first mention of referents. For example,

tôi mua một con gà và một con vịt, con gà 1.5 kg và con vịt 2 kg.

As you can see in the above example, “một” introduces the reference into the discourse. If it have been mentioned previously, “một” is not be used

It cannot occur in definite context such as denoting unique reference as in

một chiếc xe đạp duy nhất

Sometimes “một” function as the numeral but the indefinite article “một” differs from the homophonous numeral in a certain respects. When it is used as an article, “một” is not emphasized as in (3a). When “một” is a numeral, it’s capitalized for emphasis function as in (3b). “một” cannot stand alone

(3a)Thành phố HCM là một thành phố lớn

(3b)Mỗi nước chỉ có MỘT đại diện được tham gia cuộc họp.

Những and các are also function as lexical articles in a noun phrase. Although both các and những denote plurality, there is a slight difference in term of their semantics feature. While các emphasizes “all of a given set of entities”, những implies that “only certain of the total possible number are referred to” (Thompson 1965:180) as in (4a) and (4b) respectively. Moreover, “các’ can only occur in contexts that require definite noun phrases while “những” can only occur in contexts that require indefinite ones as in (4c) and (4d) respectively.

(4a)Tôi có rất nhiều sách. Những cuốn sách cũ rất hay

(4b)Đem các cuốn sách cũ ra đây.

(4c)Mời các anh vào nhà chơi

(4d)Có những cuốn sách cũ rất hay.

Like any other articles “những” and “các” does not bear phonological stress and cannot stand alone as the only element in the noun phrase.

Indefinite “những” can be used for first mentions of referents or with expressions that involve unique reference. For example,

Nhà tôi có nhiều chiếc xe. Những chiếc rẻ tiền ba tôi đi.

  1. Numerals:

Numerals occur in Vietnamese noun phrases with the word order [Num-CL-N]. They are express through system called cardinal number such as một, hai, ba,.ect

As I have already mentioned, Vietnamese numerals precede the particle CÁI and classifiers or measure phrases (if there is one) as given below

Hai CÁI anh học sinh này

Ba CÁI cân thịt này

CÁI can be used as the only overt element of the noun phrase when the context is given. In the following example, both the noun and the classifier appear in the question, but only the numeral is in the answer:

The numerals is sometimes obligatory when the context is given as in

Anh mua mấy cân thịt?

Tôi mua hai cân.

In the above example, only the answer has the numeral.

More importantly, the use of numerals and articles is mutual exclusive. In other words, in Vietnamese noun phrases where there is presence of numerals, the articles are not used and vice verse. Therefore, it will be ungrammatical to say “ những hai cái cuốn sách”

  1. The particle CÁI (focus marker): In Vietnamese noun phrase, the particle CÁI occurs before the head noun and can intervene between a numeral (if there is one) and the classifier or a measure phrase. It may be preceded by other pre-noun modifiers such as quantifiers, numerals, and articles. It must always co-occur with a classifier as in “ hai CÁI cuốn sách kia ” or “hai CÁI ấm trà này”

The particle CÁI is sometimes mistaken with the homonymous classifier “cái, but it’s different from classifier cái as well as other classifiers in term of distribution and function. When the particle CÁI precedes a count noun, the use of a classifier is obligatory, as shown in (a). However, the particle CÁI cannot be used before the homonymous classifier as shown in (b)

  1. hai CÁI con mèo

  2. hai CÁI “cái” bàn này

The two above examples are grammatical but its’ ungrammatical if we say “hai CÁI chó này”

It can go with any kind of nouns which classifiers cannot such as mass-denoting nouns and unclassified nouns as shown in (a) and (b) respectively.

  1. mua CÁI cân mỡ này

  2. tôi thích CÁI mái tóc này.

The particle CÁI can also follow the articles “những”, “các” , “một” as in “những CÁI cuốn sách kia” , “ các CÁI đất đai này” , or “một CÁI thùng”

CÁI serves as a formal device to signal that there is a focus in the NP so the use of a noun in the NP is obligatory.

“CÁI” often occurs with NPs that contain a post-nominal modifier such as demonstratives for definite interpretation as shown below

  1. CÁI mỡ này

  2. CÁI phương pháp này

  1. Quantifiers

Vietnamese quantifiers are words that can occur within a noun phrase before a head noun (with or without a classifier). Quantifiers include a class of lexical word which indicates some quantity and distribution.

Estimated quantity: mấy, vài, dăm, mươi lăm

Distribution: mọi, mỗi, từng, tất cả, toàn bộ,….

Some quantifiers can combine directly with any nouns as shown in (a), (b) such as tất cả, toàn bộ, tổng thể, ít, nhiều whereas others require the use of an intermediate classifier as in (c) such as mọi, mỗi, từng mấy, vài. In that case, the quantifiers precede the classifier:

  1. tất cả rượu này đều được nhập khẩu từ Pháp

  2. tất cả con mèo kia

  3. mấy cuốn sách này.

It will be ungrammatical in Vietnamese grammar to say “ mấy sách này”

Quantifiers directly precede the head noun that they modify when that head noun is of a noun that does not require an obligatory classifier as in

Vài dặm

Vietnamese quantifiers appear as the leftmost positions in noun phrases so do they occur before plural articles and cardinal numbers as in

Tất cả ba mươi nghìn cuốn sách đều được xuất bản

Toàn bộ các em hoc sinh này

Some quantifiers in Vietnamese can stand alone when the context is clear such as tất cả, toàn bộ, nhiều, vài, vài ba, dăm bảy as illustrated below.

Hôm nay có mấy hoc sinh nghỉ học ?

Tất cả (học sinh) đi học đầy đủ

Others are preceded with a noun as in “mỗi bức tranh là một kiệt tác.”

  1. Measure phrases: are expressions that indicate quantity. Because of the incompatibility between classifiers and mass denoting nouns as in “cái nước” or “con thịt”, the use of measure phrases is necessary in order to measure out the quantity of mass- denoting nouns. The use of measure phrase is illustrated below

kí đường, ấm trà

Both Vietnamese classifiers and measure nouns immediately precede the head noun and follow a numeral. Measure phrases can measure any nouns that have not been already individuated as in giấy- kí giấy or thùng giấy, but once nouns have been individuated by a classifier, it thus cannot be used with a measure phrase as in “kí tờ giấy”. It’s not recognizable in Vietnamese grammar. As a result, measure phrases and classifiers don’t occur in the same syntactic position. They are also different in many other features. Because MPs are phrasal, they can be modified by a possessive phrase or a demonstrative as in (a) or sometimes, a demonstrative phrase may be served as a measure phrase as in (b) By contrast, nothing can intervene between classifier and the head noun as in (c).

(a) cốc này nước

(b) bán cho tôi một chai đầy này rượu

(c) con mèo đen NOT con đen mèo

Furthermore, the use of classifiers is limited because of its incompatibility with the head noun in term of intimacy, human or shape as in cái nhà, con mèo, quả cam

By contrast, there is little restriction with respect to which measure phrase can be used with which noun as in these expressions “kí sắt, kí gạo, kí cam”

As you see, the same measure expression can be used with various nouns regardless shape, countable, uncountable noun.

  1. Post-nominal modifiers: the relation between the head noun and the post-modifiers favors to the syntax relation. Noun can have any of the following post-modifiers: NPs, adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, demonstrative, or possessive phrases.

  1. Noun adjuncts: a noun may be modified by a noun adjunct which restricts the meaning of the head noun. In Vietnamese NP, a noun adjunct immediately follows the head noun. As illustrated “Sách văn học”, “mèo mướp”,

  2. Adjective phrases: A noun can also be modified by an adjective phrase (AP) following it and the adjective may be preceded by an intensifier such as rất, hơi, khá. For example,

Cái bàn rất cũ

In case, there is a noun adjunct, the AP must follow the Noun adjunct as in

Quạt [trần] [cũ]


  1. Prepositional phrases (PP) Vietnamese grammar accepts the use of prepositional phrases as post modifiers in NPs. In case there is an adjective phrase, a modifying PP obligatorily follows an AP or NA, as in the followings

  1. Bức tranh mới gần tường.

  2. Truyện tranh trong phòng

  1. Relative clauses: are also introduced in a Vietnamese NP as post modifiers. It’s not obligatory to use a connective “mà” before relative clauses as in “cái váy mà tôi mua”

If both AP and RC modify the head noun, the order will be as follow: N- AP-RC for instance: cái váy mới mà tôi vừa mua

In case, PP and relative clause co-occur in a Noun phrase, both PP- RC and RC- PP are acceptable. For example,

Căn nhà trong huyện mà anh ấy vừa mua

Căn nhà mà anh ấy vừa mua trong huyện

  1. Demonstratives: another post-nominal modifier in Vietnamese NP is demonstratives. Vietnamese demonstratives all have the function of identifying a referent with respect to another contextual point or position. Vietnamese demonstratives are free morphemes including này, đó, kia, ni, nớ and always follow the head nouns as in con mèo đó, cái bàn kia. They are not distinguished in term of number but in term of degree of distance

      1. Proximal: này, ni ‘this/these’

      2. Medial: đó, đấy, ấy, nớ‘that/those’

      3. Distal: kia, tê ‘that over there’

      4. Indefinite: đâu "where, nào "which, sao "how

When there are others modifiers co-occurring with demonstratives, the demonstratives obligatorily occur after these modifiers. For instance,

cái bàn này

A noun phrase with a relative clause seldom takes a demonstrative but if it does, the order will usually be as follow: N- RC- Dem as in cuốn sách mà tôi mua này.

As we can see in this sentence, the RC restricts the meaning of the head noun.

  1. Possessives: In Vietnamese grammar, Possessives are expressed by a prepositional phrase consisting of preposition của “of” plus a possessor. The possessor can be a personal pronoun, a kinship term, a proper name, or a full NP.

To avoid confusion, we usually left out or keep the first preposition “của” when there are two possessive phrases in the same NP as in

Nó là cháu của mẹ tôi.

In spoken Vietnamese, to make a smooth speech we often skip the preposition “của” as in mẹ tôi, thế giới động vật…..

In Vietnamese, if there is co-occurrence between a PossP and an AP or PP in a noun phrase, the PossP always follows the AP or PP. for example

Những con mèo đen [của tôi]

Art- CL- N- AP – PossP

Những cuốn sách [trong phòng trưng bày] [của thư viện]

Art- CL -N- PP - PossP

In case, there is both a PossP and a RC, both Poss-RC and RC-PossP orders are acceptable but the first is more common. For example

Cây bút của bạn mà tôi đang viết rất tốt

Cây bút mà tôi đang viết của bạn rất tốt.

As you see in the two above sentences, they have the same meaning. However, the first is more commonly used.

Besides, a demonstrative and a PossP also may co-occur in Vietnamese NP. As happening to RC, both Poss- Dem and Dem –Poss orders are available.

Tôi sẽ cho bạn xem những cuốn sách[ này] [của tôi] Tôi sẽ cho bạn xem những cuốn sách [của tôi] [này]

  1. Head: the head of noun phrases must be nouns. It indicates which modifiers may be used and carries a heavy semantics load.

In short, the word order of the Vietnamese noun phrase is as follows: the head noun can be pre-modified by quantifiers, articles, numerals, the particle CÁI, and classifiers in that order, and post-modified by noun adjuncts, adjective phrases, preposition phrases, demonstratives, relative clauses, and possessive phrases.


Noun phrase may function as subject.

In Vietnamese language, 99% of subject is noun phrase and pronoun.

Kì thi sắp đến.

The second function of noun phrase is predicate

Cả làng này đều nhà ngói.

The third function of noun phrase is noun modifier. In Vietnamese we call it định ng ữ

Nhà gạch gần công viên.

A noun phrase can also function as object (bổ ngữ)

Cô giáo đọc thơ Hàn Mạc Tử

The final function of a noun phrase is adverbial (trạng ngữ)

Sáng nay, cha tôi phải lên đồng sớm


Within this paper, I intend to contrast English and Vietnamese noun phrase in three aspects: hierarchy relationships, word order, and co-occurrence restrictions as well as occurrence restrictions of nominal clauses.

  1. Hierarchy relationships

In term of hierarchical relationship, I would like to discuss the following main points

First of all, the occurrence of English nouns and determiners is obligatory, whereas that of Vietnamese is optional. Therefore, the following sentence is ungrammatical

I buy book

But in Vietnamese, the sentence “Tôi mua sách is grammatical

Furthermore, where the English language is concerned, there can be as many as three determiners prior to the head noun as shown in the following

[The first three] questions

Article- ordinal-cardinal

Secondly, Vietnamese is a classifier language. As such, the use of classifiers is generally obligatory in numerated noun phrases. Thus, expressions like “một cuốn sách” or “hai con mèo is ungrammatical and hai mèo or một sách is unacceptable.

In English, however, we don’t normally use classifiers before nouns. Hence, the following sentences are acceptable in English.

I have two books

The cats are chasing the dogs.

Finally, the optional element- particle CÁI can appear in Vietnamese noun phrase as in

hai CÁI thùng này

In English language, there is no such case.

2. Word order:

Another aspect that we need to pay attention to is word order. The order of sub constituents of English noun phrases is more rigid than that of Vietnamese noun phrases.

The first one I want to mention is the order of demonstrative in English and Vietnamese noun phrases. English demonstratives occur before the head noun as central determiners as in “This new dress is expensive.”

Unlike in English, demonstratives occur as the last element in the Vietnamese noun phrases as in “mấy quả cam này củ rồi.”

Similarly, Vietnamese possessives are prepositional phrases beginning with “c ủa”. They follow the head noun and normally occur as the right most position in a noun phrase as in

Những cuốn sách trên kệ của tôi rất quý

That is not the case of English possessives. They are pre determiners in noun phrases thus precede the head nouns as in the following sentence

His brother is very kind.

Then, in Vietnamese noun phrase, noun does not allow any modifying AP to its left.

In English, on the other hand, we can put an AP before the head noun. Thus, it’s acceptable to say “a new dress” in English but we cannot say “một chiếc mới váy” in Vietnamese.

Sometimes we need another noun called noun adjunct to modify the head noun, we normally place it after the head noun in Vietnamese noun phrase. Therefore, this sentence is acceptable in Vietnamese

Tôi thích đọc truyên thiếu nhi.

Unlike in Vietnamese, the noun adjunct precedes the head noun. As a result, this sentence is grammatical in English

I like reading children books.

In addition, in Vietnamese ordinal numerals occur post-nominally and are introduced by the marker thứ ‘order, rank’ as in

Tôi là người con thứ ba trong gia đình.

In the above sentence, we can see that ordinal number follows the head noun. In English, on the contrary, ordinal numbers precede the head noun so the sentence below is grammatical in English.

The second cat is more beautiful.

It’s important to notice that in English noun phrase, it is possible to use quantifiers to function as pre-determiners or post-determiners as in

All that whisky

PreD-Dem- NP

The many room of the house

Art- PostD-NP

However, it is not the case in Vietnamese noun phrases. We can only use quantifiers in the left most position as shown below

Tấc cả hoc sinh được lên lớp.

In English grammar, the relative pronoun has to follow the noun that it modifiies. Therefore, the sentences

“The book that you gave me on my birthday is still new”

“The book that you gave me on my birthday is on the shelf” are grammatical but the followings are ungrammatical.

The book is still new that you gave me on my birthday.

The book which is on the shelf that you gave me on my birthday.

However, that is not the case in Vietnamese grammar. We may place a RC after a PP or an AP. Thus, these Vietnamese sentences are grammatical.

Quyển sách trong kệ mà bạn tặng tôi vào dịp sinh nhật còn rất mới.

Quyển sách đắt tiền mà tôi mua còn rất mới.

Best of all, in the Vietnamese noun phrases, there is an optional element that can occur between a numeral (if there is one) and a classifier (other than cái). That is the particle CÁI. Thus, this sentence is grammatical in Vietnamese.

Ba CÁI cây cột này

However, in English we just say “three pillars” not “this three pillars”. That leads to another point that I will discuss in more detail is occurrence restriction aspect.

Co-occurrence restriction on constituents:

Within the English determiners, demonstratives, possessives recognized as standards, cannot both occur as determiners in the same noun phrase (krzeszowski, Tomasz, 1990). That is the reason why we cannot say

* [This her cat] is lovely.

[Dem- Poss-N]

In Vietnamese, however, there is no that kind of restriction. Both Poss- Dem and Dem- Poss are available. Thus, the two below versions are acceptable.

Các cuốn sách {này của tôi} Dem- Poss

Các cuốn sách {của tôi này} Poss- Dem

Furthermore, articles and demonstratives can co occur in Vietnamese noun phrases whereas in English, demonstratives are in complementary distribution with articles. Hence the sentence “các cuốn sách này” is grammatical in Vietnamese but expression “the these books” is unacceptable in English

The following sentence is grammatical when the English language is concerned.

The second three questions is the most difficult ones in this test.

However, numerals and articles cannot occur in the same Vietnamese noun phrase. Therefore, the expression below is ungrammatical in Vietnamese

* Các ba con gà

Teaching implications:

From what I have discussed so far, I would like to suggest some teaching implications for teaching as well as studying English as a second language.

As we know, students tend to translate their target language based on knowledge of their mother tongue. Here, because of differences in hierarchical relationships, word order, and co-occurrence restrictions between English and Vietnamese noun phrases, it’s easy for students to make mistakes when translating from English to Vietnamese and vice verse.

Firstly, they tend to put the wrong order of constituents in a noun phrase. For example, the Vietnamese expression “một quyển sách quý” may be translated into English like this “a book precious”. Therefore, as teachers we should give enough explanation of negative transfers in word order between the two languages or we give some funny expressions like “beautiful girl” “handsome boy” and distinguish them with “cô gái đẹp” and “chàng trai dễ thương”, respectively so that students may have some impressions of this grammar point.

Secondly, the occurrence of English nouns and determiners is obligatory, whereas that of Vietnamese is optional. Therefore, Vietnamese students tend to produce nouns alone, without any determiners or sometimes, they cannot find the equivalent determiners in Vietnamese. For instance, there is a slight difference between the articles “các” and “những”- “các” can only occur in contexts that denote definite noun phrases while “những” can only occur in contexts that denote indefinite ones. As a result, students tend to miss “the” when translating the expression “Các quyển sách quý” into English

“precious books” instead of “the precious books”. Therefore it’s necessary for us to pay more attention to teaching determiners especially articles

Last but not least, some restrictions on co- occurrence of constituents may result in wrong translations. For example, articles or demonstratives and possessives can co- occur in Vietnamese, we can say “những con mèo của tôi” but it will be ill-performed in English to say “the my cats”. It’s our responsibilities to design some exercises such as multiple choice, filling the blank which help students overcome these negative transfers or even organize some games to motivate mind students’


To sum up, noun phrases as well as other phrases play an important role in mastering any language. Without noun phrase, there would have no agents, no patients, and no recipients. Almost every language has noun phrases but they have different properties in different language. In general there are some similarities in the internal and external English and Vietnamese noun phrase. However, there are still some important differences between them. A contrastive analysis between English and Vietnamese is necessary and interesting for teaching and studying. I hope that this paper, to a certain extent, will provide language teachers some ideas for their teaching of noun phrases.


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