Running head: THE STRUCTURE OF NOUN PHRASE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE
The Structure of Noun Phrase in English and Vietnamese
Student: Nguyen Kim Phung
Instructor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu
December 17, 2009
Words do not simply get together at random to form a meaningful unit. That is to say they should be combined systematically and grammatically into phrases, and then into sentences. According to Wikipedia, “in grammar, a phrase is a group of words functioning as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence” (“Phrase,” n.d.). For example, the group of words “the girls in their summer dresses” is a phrase. In English and Vietnamese, there are three kinds of phrases whose names are defined on the basis of the classes of the word that is the chief word or head of the phrase namely noun phrase, verb phrase, and adjective phrase. Among those phrases, noun phrase proves to be an interesting case that needs closer attention. The goal of this study is to understand the structure of noun phrase in English and Vietnamese. Attention is also given to the comparison and contrast between the structure of English noun phrase and Vietnamese noun phrase. Finally, some implications for language teaching and language learning will be under discussion.
The structure of noun phrase in English:
George Yule (2006) defines a noun phrase as “a phrase in which the main word is a noun and which is used as a subject or an object” (p.269). When analyzing the structure of a noun phrase, Baker examines individual modifiers as well as complements that can follow the main word, i.e., a noun (1995). For example, he concerns about “elementary noun phrases introduced by quantity words”, “elementary noun phrases introduced by a(n)”, etc. It means he just examines modifiers separately rather than arranges them into an order. Jackson (1989), however, suggests all the possible elements that can combine into a single noun phrase. In this paper, I take Jackson’s viewpoint as a foundation. According to him, an English noun phrase has the following formula:
Pre-modification + Head + Post-modification
As we can see, a noun phrase consists of three parts: pre-modification, head, post-modification. In a noun phrase, the head is obligatory but the Pre-modification and the Post-modification are optional. As their names have suggested, the function of the pre-modification and post-modification is to elaborate or limit the head noun’s meaning. Noun phrase gets its name from the head word. First, let’s have a look at the head word.
The word noun phrase is self-explanatory. It is obvious that the most common kind of head word in a noun phrase is a noun. In some cases, a pronoun may also act as the central part of a noun phrase. There are four kinds of pronouns functioning as heads: personal pronoun, (a) indefinite pronoun (b), possessive pronoun (c), and demonstrative pronoun (d). For example:
he in he is a doctor
someone in someone in the house
his in hisis large.
this in thishappens every two years.
Usually, when a pronoun takes the role of head in a noun phrase, it is not preceded by pre-modification; however, it can be followed by post-modification, e.g. he who hesitates.
The pre-modification of noun phrase can be demonstrated as the following:
A noun phrase can be introduced by a pre-determiner. The most common pre-determiners are all, both, half, and fractions. For example, in the noun phrase all the students, all functions as a pre-determiner.
What comes after a pre-determiner is the class of identifiers. Identifiers include articles (a, an, the), demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and possessives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their), only one of which can occur in a noun phrase. It means that they are “mutually exclusive in English”. One thing special about noun phrase is that the article “the” can go with any head be it singular or plural (a). In contrast, demonstratives must “agree in number with the common noun phrase” (Baker, 1995, p. 153) (b). For example:
The identifier can be followed by a numeral/quantifier. Unlike the identifier, the numeral/quantifier can have more than one component. In general, this constituent of noun phrase may have the three favorite sequences:
ordinal numeral + indefinite quantifier, e.g. the first few guests
ordinal numeral + cardinal numeral, e.g. the first two guests
indefinite quantifier + cardinal numeral, e.g. several thousand guests
The groups of words coming after a numeral/quantifier are called adjectives. More than one adjective can co-occur in a noun phrase. In this case, adjectives are arranged in a rather fixed order. Jackson has suggested an ordering for adjectives with an example: a charming small round old brown French oaken writing desk. In this example, the adjectives appear in an order basing on a principle: 1. epithet (charming) 2. size (small) 3. shape (round) 4. age (old) 5. color (brown) 6. origin (French) 7. substance (oaken) 8. present participle (writing). However, it is necessary to bear in mind that there is no fixed formula for a sequence of adjective.
Placed between adjectives and a head noun is a noun modifier. A noun modifier is a noun that is placed immediately before a head noun to modify the head noun. For example, in a country garden, the village policeman, and the news agency, country, village and news are noun modifiers. Jackson also points out that “it is unusual for more than one noun modifier to occur in a noun phrase” and that “noun modifier + head noun constructions are often the first stage in the formation of compound nouns”.
After the head noun, there appears post-modification. Post-modifications can be a word such as an adjective, an adverb or a phrase such as prepositional phrase or a clause such as relative clause, non-finite clause.
Usually, when people need an adjective to modify the head noun, they place it in the pre-modification position. However, in some cases, an adjective can go after the head noun, especially in some few set phrases like blood royal, heir apparent.
In addition, in comparison with adjectives, adverbs are more frequently found in the position of post-modification and they can be regarded as reductions of a prepositional phrase. For example, the time before can be understood as the time before this one.
A relative clause is a clause composed of a relative pronoun as a head which refers back to the head noun of the noun phrase. The relative pronoun “who” and “whom” refer to people. The relative pronoun “which” is used for plants and animals. If the relative pronoun is an index of an object, it can be omitted. For example: in the noun phrase the girl whom I met yesterday, “whom” is optional.
A Non-finite clause can also function as post-modification. There are three kinds of non-finite clauses according to the verb that introduces them: Infinitive Clause (a), Present Participle Clause (b) and Past Participle Clause (c). For example:
An infinitive clause is introduced by a to-infinitive. Likewise, a present participle and a past participle clause are introduced by a present participle and a past participle respectively. Non-finite clauses can be reconstructed into full relative clauses. For example:
(a) movie to see a movie that we should see
(b) the man talking to the teacher the man who is talking to the teacher
(c) the movie chosen by the teacher the movie that is chosen by the teacher
A prepositional phrase is form by a preposition + a noun phrase, e.g. in the corner. Prepositional phrases are said to be the most frequent kind of post-modifiers in noun phrases. For example: the man in the corner. A prepositional phrase can also be rebuilt into a relative clause, e.g. the man who is in the corner.
In conclusion, we can have a brief summary of English noun phrase:
Vietnamese have an old saying “Qua bao phong ba bão táp không bằng ngữ pháp Việt Nam”, which means Vietnamese grammar is very complicated. The fact is Vietnamese linguists cannot reach a consensus on some grammatical issues. With no exception, noun phrase has been at the center of debate for long. Now I’d like to present the viewpoint of some established figures in this field.
In the book Vietnamese grammar (Ngữ pháp tiếng Việt), Nguyễn Tài Cẩn points out that Vietnamese noun phrases have two parts: the head and the modification composed of the pre-modification and post-modification. What special about his finding is the head noun. He claims that if the noun is preceded by a classifier, both the noun and the classifier form the head. So the head is the combination of T1 and T2. For example:
According to Diệp Quang Ban, a noun phrase consists of three constituents: pre-modification, the head, post-modification. In the pre-modification, all the modifiers add more information in terms of quantity. In contrast, all the elements of post-modification give more information about quality. The head of a noun phrase can be a word or a group of words in which a classifier is followed by a noun, a verb, or an adjective. For instance:
Basing on the analysis of those linguists together with Mai Ngoc Chu, Vu Duc Nghieu, and Hoang Trong Phien, this paper will discuss in detail the structure of Vietnamese noun phrases. A noun phrase is treated as a grammatical unit composed of three parts: pre-modification, head, post-modification. In this part, I will take “tất cả những cái con mèo đen ấy” as an example to analyse the structure of Vietnamese noun phrase. The structure of Vietnamese noun phrase can be summarized in the following table:
Table 2: The Structure of Noun Phrase in Vietnamese
(thành tố phụ chỉ tổng lượng)
(thành tố phụ chỉ số lượng)
Focus marker “cái”
(“cái” chỉ xuất)
(thành tố phụ nêu đặc trưng miêu tả)
(thành tố phụ chỉ định)
The head of a noun phrase can be a single noun (e.g.: mèo) or a classifier + a noun (e.g.: con mèo). Classifiers are words such as cái, con, người. There are sharp distinctions between these classifiers. “Cái” usually combines with inanimate objects, e.g.: cái chén. In contrast, “con” is likely to be accompanied by animate objects, e.g.: con rùa. “Người” is used for human being, e.g.: người lính. It is worth noticing that although người refers to human being, we say “con” người.
When there is a classifier + an attributive modifier (danh từ chỉ loại + tổ hợp từ tự do miêu tả), the head is the classifier, eg: hai người đang ngồi đọc sách đằng kia, những việc nói hôm nọ.
If two or more coordinate nouns go together in a noun phrase, they together constitute the head, eg: toàn thể cán bộ, giáo viên, công chức
In some special noun phrases such as ba sôi, hai lạnh, hai đen (ba phần nước sôi, hai phần nước lạnh, hai cốc cà phê đen), the heads are the representatives (sôi, lạnh, đen) of the absent nouns (phần, cốc)
The focus marker “cái” (“cái” chỉ xuất) is used to emphasize the noun mentioned in the head. Sometime it is used to express hatred toward someone. In addition, the focus marker ‘cái” is usually accompanied by a demonstrative that appears after the head noun. For example: cái con người bạc ác ấy. It is advisable that we distinguish the focus marker “cái” (“cái” chỉ xuất) from the classifier “cái” (“cái” loại từ). The focus marker “cái” can go with any T2, whereas the classifier “cái” can only go with T2 which are inanimate objects.
A Numeral or an indefinite quantifieris distributed in position (-2). Numerals are một (one), hai (two), ba (three), etc. Indefinite quantifiers are vài, dăm ba, mọi, những, tất cả, các, mấy, etc. Here are some points about numerals/ quantifiers that should be taken into consideration:
Firstly, the focus marker “cái” does not co-occur with mỗi, từng, mọi, or các. For example, it is ungrammatical to say mỗi cái con mèo, các cái con mèo.
Secondly, a numeral does not go immediately before collective nouns, except when the collective nouns refer to the members of a family. For example, we can say hai vợ chồng, bốn anh chị em, but we do not say năm trâu bò, mười quần áo. We should say năm đàn trâu bò, mười bộ quần áo instead.
Thirdly, it is necessary to insert a classifier between an indefinite quantifier (except for những, các) and a collective noun, eg dăm cái quần áo, mấy con gà vịt.
The position (-3) can be occupied by the following words: hết thảy, tất thảy, tất cả, etc. They express totality. The word totality is ambiguous in the sense that it can refer to the collection of many things (plural) (a) or the collection of many parts of a single object (singular) (b). For example:
Anh ta làm tất cả mọi việc.
Anh ta ăn cả một con gà.
Unlike pre-modification in which all the positions are relatively stable, post- modification is more complicated. Before investigating post-modification, we should bear in mind that there is no rigid formula for the post-modification.
The attributive modifiers can be a noun phrase (a), a verb phrase (b), an adjective phrase (c), a prepositional phrase (d), or a pronoun (e). Its function is to describe the head noun. For example:
phòng tạp chí , vườn cau
cái nhà xây năm ngoái
chiếc áo đẹp, khu vườn xanh tốt. It is noticeable that an adjective phrase may be preceded by the intensifier “rất”, e.g. chiếc áo rất đẹp, khu vườn rất xanh tốt.
cái võng ở sau vườn
phòng (của) chúng tôi.
A relative clause can also serve as an attributive modifier. In this case, the relative pronoun is “mà”. The word “mà” is optional as illustrated in cuốn sách (mà) tôi rất thích, sách báo (mà) thư viện đặt mua.
When more than one attributive modifier co-occurs, the common sequences are:
adjective phrase + prepositional phrase, e.g.: một cái võng đắt tiền ở sau vườn
adjective phrase + relative clause, e.g.: cuốn sách mới mà tôi rất thích.
the smaller unit + the larger unit, e.g.: vấn đề cấp bách / số một/ về sản xuất hàng tiêu dùng.
Demonstratives are considered to be the rightmost post-modifiers. They are ấy, nọ, kia, này, ấy, etc. Usually, demonstratives can follow any of the attributive modifiers, e.g.: hoàn cảnh (của) chị ấy, những cái con mèo đen ấy.
After considering carefully the structure of noun phrase in English and Vietnamese, I will juxtapose the structure of English noun phrases and Vietnamese noun phrases in order to compare and contrast them.
Table 1: The Structure of Noun Phrase in English
Table 2: The Structure of Noun Phrase in Vietnamese
(thành tố phụ chỉ tổng lượng)
(thành tố phụ chỉ số lượng)
Focus marker “cái”
(“cái” chỉ xuất)
(thành tố phụ nêu đặc trưng miêu tả)
(thành tố phụ chỉ định)
Although English belongs to the Indo-European language family, and the Vietnamese language belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family (Lan, n.d.), the two languages’ noun phrases have many things in common. First, both are endocentric structures (cấu trúc hướng tâm), which means they both have a head noun. Second, in both languages, the head noun can have pre-modification to the left and post-modification to the right. Let’s consider the following examples:
a house on the hill (English)
một ngôi nhà ở trên đồi (Vietnamese)
In the two examples, the heads are house and ngôi nhà. House is preceded by a pre-modifier (an article “a”) and followed by a post-modifier (a prepositional phrase “on the hill”). In the same pattern, ngôi nhà is placed between a pre-modification (numeral “một) and a post-modification (a prepositional phrase “ở trên đồi”).
The difference in language family also accounts for the differences between English and Vietnamese noun phrases.
The first distinct feature that makes Vietnamese noun phrases different from the English noun phrases is the head noun itself. As we all agree, Vietnamese nouns cannot indicate number. That is to say while English needs the morpheme “-s” or “-es” to indicate the plural form of a noun, a Vietnamese noun does not change the form whether it is singular or plural. This is well-demonstrated in this example: một con mèo (one cat), hai con mèo (two cats). However, it does not mean that we cannot differentiate a singular noun from a plural noun in Vietnamese. The numeral and the classifier are responsible for this function. For example:
một con mèo = one cat
những con mèo = many cats
con mèo = one cat
đàn mèo = many cats (more than one cats)
In (a) the numeral “một” (one) precedes a singular noun while in (b), the plural marker “những” (many) signals the appearance of a plural noun. In (c) and (d), the classifier “con” and “đàn” also give us a hint about plurality.
The second distinct property of Vietnamese noun phrases is the participation of the focus marker “cái”. From the two tables above, we can see that there is no element called focus marker “cái” in the English language. However, the focus marker “cái” of Vietnamese language is commonly attached to demonstratives ấy, nọ, kia, này, ấy which have the equivalent in English (this, that, these, those)
This brings me to the next point. The difference between English and Vietnamese noun phrases also lies in the order of the constituents of noun phrases, i.e. demonstratives and adjectives. In an English noun phrase, the demonstrative and adjective(s) usually occur to the left of the head noun (a). Meanwhile, in a Vietnamese noun phrase, adjective(s) and the demonstrative occur to the right of the head noun (b) as in the following examples:
this black cat
con mèo đen này
All the analysis and comparison is futile unless it serves a meaningful purpose. The intensive study of the structure of English and Vietnamese noun phrase provides us with food for thought in terms of implications for language teaching and language learning.
Firstly, Vietnamese nouns do not have the same mechanism with English nouns when it comes to the plural form, so Vietnamese tend to “forget” the morphemes “-s” or “-es” after a plural noun. For example, they may say two book instead of two books because in their mother tongue they can safely say một quyển sách (singular) and hai quyển sách, những quyển sách, các quyển sách (plural). The instance indicates that Vietnamese nouns remain unchanged despite the change in the plurality and that Vietnamese people use the plural markers “những”, “các” to convey plurality. That’s why they may produce ungrammatical English phrases. Moreover, Vietnamese people are very unfamiliar with the concept of countable and uncountable nouns. Consequently, they may overgeneralize the rule and not be aware that we cannot add “-s” or “-es” to an uncountable noun. For example they may use an advice/ advices and an information/ informations without knowing that advice and information are uncountable nouns; therefore, we cannot add “-s” or “-es” to advice and information. This raises a problem to Vietnamese because in our language, we say một/ nhiều lời khuyên, một/ nhiều thông tin. These examples show clearly how the mother tongue can interfere in the process of learning English. Therefore, teachers should draw students’ attention to the issue of singular/ plural nouns and countable/ uncountable nouns.
Secondly, Vietnamese people find it difficult to recognize the head noun in long and complicated noun phrases such as a beautiful young girl who is standing by the window. It’s a fatal weakness if students cannot point out the head noun. Because an English noun phrase can function as a subject of a sentence, it is vital that English learners can identify the head noun and match it with the main verb. It is obvious that subjects and verbs are the fundamental elements of a sentence. Therefore, unless students can make subjects accord with main verbs, they cannot produce correct sentences. In order for students to deal with this problem, teachers should guide them through the process of describing the organization of English noun phrases. If students can successfully identify the head noun, they will not make subject-verb agreement mistakes.
Thirdly, adjectives are very important in modifying head nouns. In terms of English structure, they usually come before head nouns. That is something I have presented above. The problem here is sometimes we need more than one adjective to describe the head noun. In such an occasion, English learners are often confused because they do not know how to put a string of adjectives into a right order. While native speakers can use many adjectives to describe things without difficulty, English learners find this a real challenge. For example, English people can say a long series of adjective with ease: a charming small round old brown French oaken writing desk. Fortunately, Jackson has suggested a rule: 1. epithet (charming) 2. size (small) 3. shape (round) 4. age (old) 5. color (brown) 6. origin (French) 7. substance (oaken) 8. present participle (writing) (Jackson, 1982, p.13). I have to admit that we do not have many sequences of adjectives like this in real life. However, these are very common in writing and knowing how to arrange adjectives in a natural order is an advantage. As a result, teachers should remind students of how to use adjectives to make their description as detail and correct as possible, especially in writing.
In conclusion, the minimum requirement of a noun phrase both in English and Vietnamese is a head noun. If we want to add more color to a noun phrase, we can make use of pre-modification and post-modification. A contrastive analysis view of the structure of noun phrases in English and Vietnamese gives us an insight into the similarities and differences between the two equivalent linguistic units in the two languages. It also helps us to draw out some implications for language teaching and language learning. I hope that this paper in some way can be useful for ESL and EFL teachers and students. What I want to suggest more is that new researches focus on the function of noun phrases because a thorough understanding of the function of noun phrases can give learners more confidence in their language competence.
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