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Noun Phrase Modifiers in English and Vietnamese





Instructor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu

Student: Bui Thi Thao

Ho Chi Minh December 30, 2010


I myself formerly had a thought that noun phrase was not really a very complicated issue when I approached the most powerful language in the world _ English on the very first days; because noun phrase is merely a noun consisting of something to modify it like so much the way noun phrase in Vietnamese does. For example: một con mèo màu vàng – a yellow cat. When I grew up a little bit, I discovered that “a” and “yellow” are called modifiers. Obviously, noun phrase in English is very different from that in Vietnamese in term of the position of the modifiers. At present when I am in the university and is assigned this kind of work, a question comes up in my mind “Are English modifiers and the number of them different from or similar to those of Vietnamese?” Personally, I think that it is really an interesting question, because most of learners of English always bear in their mind only the big difference between the position of modifiers in English and Vietnamese, so they often ignore how many modifiers exactly exist in a complete noun phrase. I think that if we do not know or arenot taught what this modifier is, how it functions and what its position is in a noun phrase, we surely will make serious errors. In addition, it is unfortunate for us that noun phrase occurs most frequently in the sentences of our daily conversation among other phrases, such as: verb phrase, adjective phrase or prepositional phrase. Therefore, we have to be more aware of modifiers; otherwise, we will cause much trouble for ourselves to be understood well. I myself believe that it is very important to undertake a research on noun phrase modifiers in English and in Vietnamese in order to make it clear to our readers, the differences and similarities, so that they can speak, write and specially translate correctly, English into Vietnamese or vice versa.


“Language is the use of a system of sounds and words to communicate” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) or in other words, in order to communicate successfully we need words, words signal single concepts. However, word is merely word; a single word is often insufficient and vague. For example, suppose that we go to a department store and the seller asks what we want to buy. “A book”, we answer; but there is a wide range of books on the shelf, this kind of answer would be too general. It lacks specificity. “That Vietnamese geography book with red cover” will be much better. When a single term cannot fulfill our need of making specific reference, we should add more terms to limit what we want to refer to, which will lead to the result of using noun phrase.

What is a noun phrase? ”In grammar, a noun phrase (abbreviated NP) is a phrase whose head is a noun or a pronoun, optionally accompanied by a modifier set.”(Wikipedia). In “Analyzing English: an introduction to descriptive linguistics” Howard Jackson explains this term in more detail: “The noun phrase in English is composed potentially of three parts. The central part of the noun phrase, the head, is obligatory. The head may be preceded by some pre-modification, and it may be followed by some post-modification.” Obviously, the definition of English and Vietnamese noun phrase are the same because Nguyen Thi Ly Kha writes about Vietnamese noun phrase in her book “Ngữ pháp Tiếng Việt”: “A noun phrase, in a full form, consists of three parts: pre modification - the head - post modification.” Immediately, a question comes across our mind “What is a modifier? What is it functions in a noun phrase?” “In grammar, a modifier (or qualifier) is an optional element in phrase structure or clause structure; the removal of the modifier typically does not affect the grammaticality of the construction. Modifiers can be a word, a phrase or an entire clause. Semantically, modifiers describe and provide more accurate definitional meaning for another element.” (Wikipedia) Both noun phrases in English and in Vietnamese need modifiers, and except for the difference in term of position, they are surprisingly quite similar.



The pre-modification in a noun phrase consists of a number of word classes or sub-classes in a specific order, and according to Bernard O'Dwyer in “Modern English Structures: Form, Function, And Position” the maximum number of pre-modifiers is five (Bernard O'Dwyer 2006: 132).

From the organization chart above, we ourselves can form any simple noun phrases, for example:

even both these two cute boys

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) the head

specially all the first active students

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) the head

However, it does not mean that consisting of six categories like examples above: (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) and the head noun are sufficient, because it depends on what we want to talk about, a noun phrase can be expanded. We can add further information like even both these first two little cute smart schoolchildren.


In a noun phrase restricter is word that carry the function of controlling the reference of noun within limits. It is seldom mentioned and noticed but it plays an important role in a certain noun phrase. Some of the restricters which often occur are: specially, even, just, merely, only, particularly, almost, nearly; and its position is at the very beginning of a noun phrase .e.g. nearly one-third of those ridiculous hats, almost half an hour, just one-fifth of her ancient European history books etc.


According to Howard Jackson, pre-determiner is a small group of words which have a quantifier reference. The most common members of this class are: all, both, double, twice, three times half, together with fraction numerals (one-fourth of, one-third of, etc); e.g. both the English books, one-third of the number of students, three times this number, all my love. Pre-determiner often stands right after retrister.


We can call determiner identifier which is commonly described as articles, demonstratives and possessives and comes before any numerals or indefinite quantifiers that may be present. Here is the table of the class of identifiers.





a, an, the

this, that, these, those

  • Possessive

adjectives: my, your, his, her, their, our, its.

  • Possessive

of names: John’s, Mary’s etc.

  • Possessive

of common nouns

any, each, either, enough, much, neither, no, some, what, which, whose, every, few, less, little, many (adj), more, most, other, same, several, single, such (adj)

“The linguistics function of the identifiers is to indicate the status of the noun phrase in relation to its linguistic and situational context.” (Howard Jackson 1999: 13)

these five luxurious hotels

my first car

all the many good questions

each flower

either computer

neither blanket

every month

much sugar

There is one key point we have to bear in mind that in a certain noun phrase occurring only one determiner; that is to say we are not allowed to say those my books or a her skirt, etc. However, if we still wish to combine article or demonstrative those, a with possessive my, her, we must use an “of”- phrase with the possessive pronoun (mine, yours, hers, his, theirs, ours, its).

those books of mine

a skirt of hers


Post-determiner refers to quantifier/numeral, which consists of cardinal (one, two, three, four, five, etc) and ordinal numeral (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, last, etc). They can occur in a noun phrase alone e.g. the first sentence, five soldiers or through a restricted number of possible combinations.

Ordinal numeral + indefinite quantifier; e.g. the last few minutes, the first several houses

Ordinal numeral + cardinal numeral; e.g. the third three birds, the last ten groups

Indefinite quantifier + cardinal numeral (especially round number); e.g. several thousand students


Adjective whose function is to add details to a noun phrase in order to make it clear and specific is very important and various. Its position is right after the determiners and quantifiers. In a noun phrase it is very popular and common if there is a number of adjectives occurring at once; and if that happens, rule must be added to make it logically and systematically. Here is the ordering of adjectives in a noun phrase represented by Howard Jackson. 1. epithet, 2. size, 3. shape, 4. age, 5. colour, 6. origin, 7. substance, 8. participles.












































(8. Participles: include present participle and past participle.

A. Present participle: used to show an active meaning the surprising boy, an interesting film, the terrifying women or used to describe an action that is happening a baby is crying a crying baby, the child is sleeping the sleeping child, some running boys some boys are running.

Gerund: also has the form of V-ing. However, it is used to refer to the function.

the swimming pool  you cannot say “The pool is swimming”; my very beautiful living room; the running shoes; a sleeping bag; the dining car.

B. Past participle: used to show a passive meaning the stolen letter, a broken heart, those injured people, the damaged cars etc.

Note: In these cases, it is a must to use past participle no matter it shows active or passive meaning a retired worker, her divorced husband, an escaped prisoner.)

These eight adjectives in the table above might be followed by other adjectives of the kind medical and social called denominal e.g. the complicated busy New York social life; social in this example is considered as denominal.

Sometimes between adjectives and the head noun come noun modifiers (often called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts), which are together with the noun in order to function as the complete heads of noun phrases and to describe the noun in more detail. For example: the evening dress, five sports cars, the country houses, a pocket dictionary, picture frames etc.

“Noun modifier is optional — meaning that it can be removed without changing the grammar of the sentence. For example, in the phrase "chicken soup" the noun modifier "chicken" modifies the noun "soup” (Wikipedia). Furthermore, we can notice that there is more than one noun modifier occurring in a noun phrase e.g. the child poverty action group, child modifies poverty, and child poverty together with action modify group.

There is still one further kind of pre-modifier, which is rarely mentioned, that is a noun phrase in the genitive case. Pick up one example, scrutinize and see how it works in a noun phrase.

the beautiful tall twenty-five-year-old American schoolchild’s small pocket dictionary

In the example above the beautiful tall twenty-five-year-old American schoolchild’s is a noun phrase genitive marked by an ‘s added to the final word, small - an adjective, pocket - noun modifier. Therefore, we can know that noun phrase in a genitive case may commonly be considered as a substitution for a possessive case (his, their, our, Smith’s, Jane’s etc.), and because it is regarded as possession, so their position is so much alike as the position of determiner – possession.


Post-modifiers consist of all the items, which are placed after the head noun, including:

Adjective Phrase

Adjective post-modification is often seen after indefinite pronoun (something, nothing, anything, someone, anyone, no one etc.) which play the role of the head noun e.g. something weird, no one present, nothing wrong. More advanced, in some cases, we notice that adjective post-modification is more than a simple adjective; that is an adjective phrase coming after the head noun a bag full of carrots, something fishy about it (in the idiom There is something fishy about it). However if we exam it carefully, we discover that adjective post-modification is truly a form of a reduced relative clause something that is weird, no one that is present, nothing that is wrong, a bag which is full of carrots, there is something that is fishy about it.

Adverbial phrase

We can easily find out some examples of adverb post-modification the room above, the room upstairs, these pupils here, the sky above, the plain behind, those girls inside. In the book “Analyzing English: an introduction to descriptive linguistics” Howard Jackson says that these examples could possibly be regarded as reductions of a prepositional phrase e.g. the room above you, the plain behind the mountain.

Relative clause

Both restrictive and non-restrictive clause can post-modify the head noun in a noun phrase. While restrictive clause helps to define exactly the noun, non-restrictive clause just adds further information to the noun and is separated from the noun by a comma.

In a relative clause, relative pronouns, which consist of ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘whose’, ‘that’ (human); ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘what’ (non-human); ‘when’; ‘where’; and ‘why’, ‘for which’ (reason), are considered as substitutions for the head noun, refer back to the head noun.

The man who is a doctor is my uncle.

Restrictive clause

Peter , whom everyone suspected, turn out to be innocent.

Non-restrictive clause

In addition, according to Howard Jackson, a further type of relative clause is one involving comparison.

She buys more clothes in a month than I buy in a year.

The relative here is the than-clause, relative pronoun is than which refers back to the quantifier more.

She buys more expensive clothes than she can afford.

The relative pronoun than in this example above refers back to the comparative adjective. (Howard Jaskson 1999:15)

In a superlative comparison sentence It is the most expensive clothes (that) she can afford, post-modifier is a relative clause introduced by that.

Non-finite clause

Non-finite clause consists of three kinds: infinitive clause e.g. to leave that building; present participle clause e.g. standing at the corner of the street; past participle clause e.g. built by the local government. These non-finite clauses are considered as reductions of relatives clause, standing right after the head noun in order to clarify it.

Prepositional phrase

Prepositional phrase post-modification may be simple with only one preposition modifying the head noun the book on the table, the woman behind me or may be very complicated several questions concerning the future of the company, all cases concerning children, the house on the edge of cliff.

Like non-finite clauses, prepositional phrase may be related to fuller relative clause, very often with the verb “be” the book which is on the table, the woman who is behind me.


Complements are in the form of a prepositional phrase the student of physics, or a that-clause the claim that the earth is round. The difference between modifiers and complements is that complements complete the meaning of the noun; complements are necessary, whereas modifiers are optional because they just give additional information about the noun. (Wikipedia)

Noun phrase

Noun phrase playing a role of post modifier is said to be apposition, as exemplified in:

She, Mary, is his fiancée. It means that She is Mary and she is his fiancée.


According to M. B. Emeneau (1951:85) the structure of Vietnamese noun phrase consists of:

(từ chỉ lượng)


(loại từ)


Classified noun
(danh từ biệt loại)


(định ngữ)


Demonstrative numerator
(từ chỉ trỏ)


Nonclassified noun
(danh từ không biệt loại)

The Vietnamese equivalent table is drawn by Nguyen Tai Can in “Từ loại danh từ trong tiếng Việt hiện đại” (Nguyễn Tài Cẩn 1975:27):

tất cả







However, also in that book, Nguyen Tai Can states that classifier is the head noun (1975:293). Therefore, from his point of view, “con” is the head noun instead of “mèo”, and “mèo” is no longer considered as head noun, it is changed into attribute - định ngữ (later we call it restrictive adjunct). One year later, he firmly asserts: “classifier is the head noun” (1976a:163-170). His final conclusion and Cao Xuan Hao’s (1986, 1992, 1999) are the same one.

Finally, here is the summary of modifiers in Vietnamese noun phrase:








ĐN hạn định

ĐN miêu tả

ĐN chỉ trỏ vị trí












tất cả




đông đúc

bé tí xíu

cuối cùng



Đầm Sét


mà anh vừa thấy

tất cả




buôn người

đông đúc

bạc ác

cuối cùng



trong xã hội TK


Đại từ




DT đơn vị










(LNTT = lượng ngữ chỉ toàn thể, LNSL = lượng ngữ chỉ số lượng, TCT = từ chỉ xuất, TCĐV = từ chỉ đơn vị, ĐN = định ngữ, ĐNPS = định ngữ hàm ý phức số, ĐNTT = định ngữ trang trí, ĐNCX = định ngữ chỉ xuất, ĐNTC = định ngữ trực chỉ, ĐNSH = định ngữ sở hữu, ĐNVT = định ngữ chỉ vị trí, ĐNTC = định ngữ là một tiểu cú, ST = số từ, PTCL = phụ từ chỉ lượng, QT = quán từ, DT = danh từ, DK = danh từ khối, VT= vị từ, ngữ vị từ, DN = danh ngữ, GN = giới ngữ, TC = tiểu cú).


  • The position (1) is the position of the word “cái chỉ xuất. “Cái chỉ xuất is followed right by the head noun. Its function is to differentiate the head noun from the other same kinds of noun and emphasize on that head noun, as exemplified in:

Tất cả những cái con người bạc ác ấy

Những cái tờ báo lá cải ấy (ai mà thèm đọc)

Cái chỉ xuất is often misused with the word “cáidanh từ đơn vị which is used to illustrate the unit of the head noun in Vietnamese and used to count things. E.g. cái quyển sách ấy, cái con mèo ấy;“cái” in these noun phrases above is “cái chỉ xuất. Một cái áo, hai cái quần, bốn cái bàn etc. “cái” here refers to “cáidanh từ đơn vị.

  • The position (2) and (3) are both called numerator (từ chỉ lượng), but there still exists difference.

1/ The position (2) is the position of numeral quantifiers từ chỉ lượng hàm nghĩa số. Some common members of this category are: từng, mỗi, những, một, hai, ba, bốn etc.

từng cái kẹo bốn cái kẹo

mỗi việc tốt hai việc tốt

những học sinh bảy học sinh

2/ The position (3) is the position of pre-determiners từ chỉ lương toàn thể in English, including some words such as: tất cả, toàn bộ, hết thảy, cả, một phần ba, một nửa etc.

Tất cả những em học sinh nhà nghèo mà học giỏi ấy

Một nửa số đồ dùng học tập này

They have a quantifier reference. However, they are different from numeral quantifiers in (2), because they refer to the whole, the general, whereas numeral quantifiers tend to emphasize the specific numbers of the head noun.

It is important to remember that numeral quantifiers từ chỉ lượng hàm nghĩa số and pre-determiners từ chỉ lương toàn thể are located in two separated columns. Moreover, they are not interchangeable.

We can say: “Tất c ả những ngôi nh à xinh đẹp đằng kia”, but we cannot say: “Những tất cả ngôi nhà xinh đẹp đằng kia”.

Or we have to say: “Toàn bộ 10 lớp học đổ nát đó” intead of “10 toàn bộ lớp học đổ nát đó”.


  • The position (1’) is the position of restrictive adjunct which is the word used to restrict the reference of the head noun. In Vietnamese we call it Định ngữ hạn định which follows directly the head noun, while in English it is noun modifier standing right before the head noun in pre-modification. Restrictive adjunct is put in a systematic and specific order and it is often noun. For example:

nhãn tiêu  nhãn tiêu da bò  nhãn tiêu da bò Vĩnh Long

sách bài tập  sách bài tập tiếng  sách bài tập Tiếng Anh  sách bài tập tiếng Anh lớp 10  sách bài tập tiếng Anh lớp 10 tập 1

  • The position (2’) is the position of adjectives, which play the role of giving additional information to the head noun, including epitheton ornantium (định ngữ trang trí) (xinh đẹp, mập ú, bẩn thỉu, xơ xác etc.); định ngữ phức số (phong phú, đa dạng, đông đúc, khác nhau etc.) e.g định ngữ chỉ xuất (đầu tiên, thứ nhất, thứ hai, trước tiên etc).

These adjectives always follow restrictive adjunct and any changes between these two attributes in ordering are not accepted.

E.g. đàn gà mập ú đông đúc đầu tiên ấy, những quyển sách dày cộp khác nhau , in these examples gà, sách are restrictive adjunct; mập ú , dày cộm are epitheton ornantium, đông đúc, khác nhau are examples of định ngữ phức số, đầu tiên is example of định ngữ chỉ xuất.

  • The position (3’) is the ending of a noun phrase, including:

1/ Định ngữ trực chỉ (này, kia, ấy, nọ), in English that is demonstrative. mấy quyển sách này  these books, những cô gái kia  those girls

2/ Định ngữ sở hữu, in English we have possessive case.e.g. ngôi nhà của tôi  my house, ba me của Mary  Mary’s parents.

3/ Định ngữ vị trí, the English equivalent is prepositional phrase. E.g. những quyển sách trên giá (đã không cánh mà bay)  these books on the shelf

4/ Định ngữ giải thích có cấu trúc là một tiểu cú, it is like relative clause in English.

E.g. cái anh cao cao mà anh gặp hôm qua  the tall man who you met yesterday



Surprisingly, after having conducted this essay we can notice that noun phrase modifiers in English is quiet similar to those in Vietnamese although their order is completely different. In an English noun phrase it has pre- and post-modification, it is also the case in Vietnamese. Both English and Vietnamese noun phrase have quantifier reference/ numerator, demonstrative, possessive, adjective/attributive, relative clause and prepositional phrase.


The big gap between noun phrase modifiers in English and Vietnamese is the order of modifiers as we can see clearly in the essay. Moreover, in English noun phrase includes restricter whereas in Vietnamese it does not. However, in Vietnamese noun phrase exists “cái” danh từ đơn vị which we cannot see in English noun phrase.


This essay systemizes knowledge of noun phrase modifiers in both two languages –English and Vietnamese. Therefore, it can help teachers a lot in preparing their lessons and teaching this point in the class, specially advanced class or class for the gifted. Although the essay mainly focuses on the modifiers in two languages; how many modifiers? What are they? What is its function? etc, it also mentions the position of each modifier in English and in Vietnamese and teachers can take it as reference. Moreover, the contrastive analysis of noun phrase modifiers in English and Vietnamese also helps translation teaching more effectively, and learners get the lesson and practice translating more successfully, because the essay makes clear the differences and similarities between two languages to the readers. They got knowledge and easily apply it into their translation e.g. how can translate this modifier, what does it mean in English, where should I put it in Vietnamese etc.


Kurland, Daniel J. "Complete Reference: The Noun Phrase." How the Language Really Works: The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing. 2003. Critical Reading. 3 Apr. 2009.

Jackson, Howard. (1999) “Analyzing English: An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics”. Pergamum Institute of English.

Nguyen Thi Ly Kha. (2009) “Ngu Phap Viet Nam”. University of Education, Vietnam.

Noun phrase. November 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_phrase

Cum Danh Ngu Tieng Viet. March 14th, 2010 from http://baigiang.violet.vn/present/show/entry_id/3093123

Ve Cac Thanh To Phu Sau Trung Tam Trong Danh Ngu Tieng Viet. Oct 8th, 2010 from http://edu.goonline.vn/e-tap-chi/tin/15/169/2244/ve-cac-thanh-to-phu-sau-trung-tam-trong-danh-ngu-tieng-viet.html

O'Dwyer, Bernard. “Modern English Structure: Form, Function and Position”.

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