Running head: the structure of noun phrase the structure of Vietnamese and English Noun phrase

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The structure of Vietnamese and English Noun phrase

A contrastive analysis

Tran Thi Thanh Tam


HCMC University of Pedagogy

Have you done the exercise like putting the adjectives in the right order to make the correct noun phrase? For example: computer/laptop/high-tech/brand-new/deep/university's/blue/my. I myself find it very confused whenever I have to come up against these kinds of exercise. Which word should come first and which word should be placed at the end? I am sure that some of you have the same feeling to me. Writing this paper, I would like to show you what I have been finding about noun phrase structure in English and Vietnamese, which is in the first part. In the second part, I will give the comparison and contrast between these structures in the two language. Hope that these two parts and also the implication in the final part can help you in teaching and learning language to some extent.

Literature review

All of you must have known or can guess that noun phrase is one kind of phrases. But what is phrase? Before we go any further, let's remind ourselves of what a phrase is.


According to wikipedia,

in grammar, a phrase is a group of words functioning as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence.

Example 1: the store at the end of the street, at the end of the street, of the street

We have a basic three-part structure of a phrase: 

pre-Head string


post-Head string

One phrase consists of a Head, a string of elements which appears before the Head, called the pre-Head string and a string of elements which appears after the Head, called the post-Head string. Of these three parts, only the Head is obligatory so it can not be omitted from the phrase.  Pre-Head and post-Head strings can even be omitted at the same time, leaving only the Head. The Head of the phrase is the central word defining the type of phrase. Here are five phrase types:

Phrase Type


Example 2

Noun Phrase


the children in class 5

Verb Phrase


play the piano

Adjective Phrase


delighted to meet you

Adverb Phrase


very quickly

Prepositional Phrase


in the garden

Noun phrase

From the definition of phrases, we can easily find that a phrase is a noun phrase when its head is a noun. Wikipedia defines a noun phrase (abbreviated NP) is a phrase whose head is a noun or a pronoun, optionally accompanied by a modifier set. Noun phrases are very common cross-linguistically, but some languages like Tuscarora and Cayuga have been argued to lack this category.

Example 3: all the changes in Japan’s economy (English noun phrase), Vingt-cinq belles filles (twenty-five beautiful girls) (French noun phrase)

In English, Bress (2005) says that a noun phrase is either a pronoun or any group of words that can be replaced by a pronoun.

Example 4: 'they', 'cars', and 'the cars' are noun phrases, but 'car' is just a noun, as you can see in these sentences (in which the noun phrases are all in bold):
Q: Do you like cars?
A: Yes, I like them.
Q: Do you like the cars over there?
A: Yes, they are nice.
Q: Do you like the car I bought last week?
A: Yes, I like it. (Note: 'It' refers to 'the car', not 'car')

In Vietnamese, Diệp Quang Ban defines noun phrase as a free combination which has no relational words preceding. There is a principal and accessory relation between the main element and subordinate elements. The main element is a noun.

Example 5: Lanmột học sinh giỏi trong lớp 6A (Lan is a good student in class 6A).

In this sentense, ‘Lan’, ‘một học sinh giỏi’ and ‘lớp 6A’ are noun phrases.

Although the two definitions are different from each other, they both show that each noun phrase can have more than one element. This leads to the point that there must be one order of those elements. Let’s look through the word order in both English and Vietnamese and find out how it is combined with each other.

Word order in English noun phrase

According to Nguyen (2004), the structure of noun phrases can be divided into 2 types: both basic and complex noun phrase.
  1. Basic noun phrases can be pronouns, numerals or nouns with articles (indefinite, definite or zero)

    • Pronouns are a special class of noun. They ‘replace’ nouns or rather whole noun phrases, since they cannot generally occur with determiners. Pronouns include:

  • Personal pronouns have two sets of case forms: subjective and objective: ‘I’/ ‘me’, ‘we’/ ‘us’, ‘he’/ ‘him’, ‘she’/ ‘her’, ‘they’/ ‘them’; ‘you’ and ‘it’. Example 6: I gave him a book.

  • Reflexive pronouns include ‘myself’, ‘yourself’, ‘himself’, ‘herself’, ‘itself’, ‘ourselves’, ‘yourselves’ and ‘themselves’. Example 7: He hurt himself yesterday.

  • Possessive pronouns are ‘mine’, ‘ours’, ‘yours’, etc. Example 8: This book is mine

  • Relative pronouns: ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘that’, ‘which’, etc. Example 9: The book, which is on the table, is mine.

  • Demonstrative pronouns: ‘this’, ‘these’, ‘that’, ‘those’. Example 10: This is my friend.

  • Interrogative pronouns: ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘what’, etc. Example 11: Who did you go with?

  • Universal pronouns: ‘each’, ‘all’, ‘every’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, etc. Example 12: Everyone has his own ambitions.

  • Partitive pronouns consist of assertive pronouns (‘some’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, etc.); non-assertive (‘any’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, etc.); and negative (‘none’, ‘no-one’, ‘nothing’, etc.). Example 13: Nobody has come yet.

    • Numerals including cardinal numbers (‘one’, ‘two’, etc.) and ordinal numbers (‘first’, ‘second’, etc.)

Example 14: Two is better than one.

First is First and second is nobody.

    • Noun with articles (Indefinite article ‘a’, ‘an’; definite article ’the’ and zero article): The head noun of a noun phrase can be singular noun, plural noun ‘books’ or uncountable noun.

Example 15: I have an apple.

I have a book.

The book is my mother’s present.

Complex noun phrase includes pre-modification, head noun and post-modification.




* asterisks denote elements that may appear more than once.
The Noun phrase formula states that a noun phrase must contain a headword but need not contain anything else. If the Noun phrase has more elements than the head, it may contain one or more pre-modifiers (which precede the head) and/or one or more post-modifiers (which follow the head).

Example 16: All of the beautiful girls in my class are kind.

pre-modification head post-modification

  • Pre-modification consists of all the words placed before the head. These words are usually pre-determiner, determiners, post-determiner, adjectives and noun modifiers. As in the example 17, ‘all of the beautiful’ is pre-modification.

  • Pre-determiner:

Pre-determiner may be ‘all’, ‘both’ and ‘half’. Example 18: All (of) my time, both these books, half an hour.

The multipliers such as ‘double’, ‘twice’, ‘three times’, etc. and fractions such as ‘one-third’, ‘two-fifths’, etc. Example 19: twice his strength, one-third of the time.

Or ‘such’ and ‘what’ (exclamative). Example 20: what a pity, such an interesting story.

  • Determiner:

Articles (the, a). Example 21: the girls, a useful tool.

Demonstratives (this, that). Example 22: this computer, that ugly face.

Possessives (my, their, etc.). Example 23: my house, her pair of shoes.

Genitive. Example 24: my mother’s shirt, the dog’s tail.

  • Post-determiner

Cardinal numbers (‘one’, ‘two’, etc). Example 25: all of the three sisters, one good reason

Quantifiers (some, many, few, little, etc.). Example 26: all of her many good idea, half of little water

  • Adjectives:

Pre-modifying adjectives can be those denoting opinion (‘beautiful’, intelligent’, ‘good’...); size (‘big’, ‘small’...); age (‘young’, ‘old’...); shape (‘square’, ‘round’...); color (‘red’, ‘blue’...) origin (‘British’, ‘Parisian’...); material (‘silk’, ‘metal’...); purpose (‘sleeping’, ‘roasting’...)

Example 27:


























  • Noun modifiers

Example 28: the city woman, the small-town businessmen

  • Head noun is the hub, the center of attraction of the noun phrase; it is the noun or pronoun around which the other parts gather together. Come back the example 17, ‘girls’ is the head of that phrase.

  • Post-modification comprises words in the noun phrase that follow the head. These words usually consist of prepositional phrases, finite clauses (or relative clauses), nonfinite clauses, adjective phrases, noun phrases or adverbial phrases like ‘in my class’ in example 17. We can see more examples here:

Example 29:






with yellow covers (prepositional phrase)



who told you the secret (finite clause)



speaking English fluently (nonfinite clause)



full of books (adjective phrase)



"Carmen" (noun phrase)



back (adverbial phrase)

The order in English noun phrase can be summarized in the table below:


Head noun






noun modifier

  • prepositional phrases

  • finite clauses (or relative clauses)

  • nonfinite clauses

  • adjective phrases

  • noun phrases

  • adverbial phrases

  • all, both, half

  • multipliers

  • such, what

  • article

  • demonstrative

  • possessive

  • genitive

  • Cardinal number

  • quantifier

  • opinion

  • size

  • age

  • shape

  • color

  • origin

  • material

  • purpose

Word order in Vietnamese noun phrase

Vietnamese Noun phrase is also divided into 3 parts:


(phần phụ trước)

Head noun

(phần trung tâm)


(phần phụ sau)

Example 30: tất cả những cuốn sách mà Mary đã đọc (all of the books that Mary has read). In this phrase, the words ‘tất cả, những’ are pre-modifiers. ‘cuốn sách’ is head noun. ‘mà Mary đã đọc’ is post-modifier.

  1. Pre-modifier: includes all the words before head noun like ‘tất cả, những’ that you can see in example 30. Pre-modifier has 3 elements: words denoting ‘all’, word denoting quantity and the word ‘cái’.

  • Word denoting ‘all’ (từ chỉ tổng lượng): “tất cả”, ‘hết thảy’, ‘tất thảy’, ‘cả’... Example 31: hết thảy mọi việc (all of things), tất cả quần áo (all of clothes)

This kind of words can not go with words denoting estimated quantity.

  • Word denoting quantity (từ chỉ số lượng):

  • Numeral (từ chỉ số đếm): ‘một’, ‘hai’, ‘mười’... Example 32: một con vịt (a duck), mười ngôi nhà mới (ten new houses)

  • Word denoting estimated quantity (số từ phỏng định): ‘vài’, ‘ba’, ‘dăm’, ‘vài ba chục’... Example 33: vài câu trả lời đúng (several right answers)

  • Word denoting distribution (từ hàm ý phân phối): ‘mỗi’, ‘từng’, ‘mọi’... Example 34: mỗi trang (each page), mọi đứa trẻ (every child)

  • Article (quán từ): ‘những’, ‘các’, ‘một’... Example 35: những chiếc xe tải lớn (big trucks), các quyển sách (books)

  • The word ‘mấy’. Example 36: mấy cuốn sách này (these books)

  • The word ‘cái’. Example 37: cái quyển sách này (this book), cái ông giáo sư tóc bạc đó (that white-haired teacher over there)

Head noun: like ‘cuốn sách’ in example 30. Head nouns in Vietnamese Noun phrases do not consist of one word at all. Most of them are the combination between two parts: a classifier (cuốn) and a noun (sách). Until now, there has been a controversy about which of these two parts take the central role. Some people think that the noun is the central because the noun is a lexical word while classifier is a form word. Besides the nouns which must have classifiers going with them, there are nouns which don’t need to have classifier preceding.

  • Classifier + Noun:

Some kinds of classifier (từ chỉ loại):

Classifier goes with noun denoting object (danh từ chỉ vật thể): ‘cái’, ‘con’, ‘cây’, ‘củ’, ‘người’, ‘đứa’, ‘thằng’, ‘nhà’, ‘bức’, ‘tấm’, tờ’, ‘sợi’...

Example 38: cái bàn (table), đứa bé (child), nhà văn (writter), tờ báo (newspaper)

Classifier goes with noun denoting substance (danh từ chỉ chất thể): ‘miếng’, ‘cục’, ‘hạt’, ‘dòng’, ‘giọt’, ‘hạt’, ‘trận’...

Example 39: cục đá (rock), hạt muối (salt)

Classifier goes with noun denoting weather phenomenon (hiện tượng thời tiết): ‘làn’, ‘cơn’, ‘trận’, ‘tia’...

Example 40: trận mưa (rain), tia chớp (lightning)

Classifier used for semantic change

Example 41: tên gián điệp (spy), tay đao phủ (executioner), lá thư (letter), cánh buồm (sail), ngọn núi (mountain)

Classifier denoting generality: ‘thứ’, ‘loại’, ‘hạng’, ‘kiểu’, ‘cách”...

Example 42: loại thịt (kind of meat), kiểu xe (type of vehicle), cách làm (method)

  • Some nouns have ability to combine with the word denoting quantity directly without any classifier. We use this way to enumerate something.

Example 43: hai bàn (two tables), sáu ghế (six chairs) in cần mượn thêm hai bàn và sáu ghế (need borrow two tables and six chairs more)

Post-modifier: ‘mà Mary đã đọc’ as you see in example 30. Post-modifier has two elements below:

  • Elements including lexical words denoting particular description (yếu tố chứa thực từ nêu đặc trưng mô tả):

Particularizing classificator (yếu tố phân loại chi tiết hóa):

Example 44: mèo đen (black cat), mèo trắng (white cat), mèo tam thể (tri-coloured cat), mèo đực (he-cat), mèo cái (she-cat)

Xe đạp trẻ em (children bike), xe đạp đua (racing bike), xe đạp nam (male bike), xe đạp nữ (female bike), xe đạp leo núi (mountain bike)

Epithet 1 (word denoting quality) (hình dung từ chỉ chất lượng)

Example 45: xe đạp mới (new bike), xe đạp mới màu xanh (new green bike)

Epithet 2 (word denoting attitude) (hình dung từ chỉ thái độ)

Example 46: con vật yêu quí (beloved pet), bác sĩ nổi tiếng (famous doctor)

  • Deictic word (từ chỉ thị):

Determiner (từ hạn định):

  • Possessive (sở hữu): ‘(của) tôi’, ‘(của) chúng tôi’, ‘(của) mày’, ‘(của) bọn mày’, ‘(của) nó’, ‘(của) chúng nó’...

Example 47: quyển sách của tôi (my book), bố của Lan (Lan’s father)

  • Demonstrative (chỉ định): ‘này’, ‘đây’, ‘kia’, ‘nọ’, ‘ấy’, ‘đó’, ‘đấy’

Example 48: con mèo này (this cat), cái bàn kia (that table)

Interrogative word (từ phiếm chỉ):

  • Possessive: ‘(của) ai’, ‘(của) người nào’

Example 49: quyển sách của người nào (whose book)

  • Demonstrative: ‘gì’, ‘nào’, ‘đâu’

Example 50: ngôi nhà nào (which house)

The order in Vietnamese noun phrase can be summarized in the table below:


Head noun


word denoting ‘all’

word denoting quantity

the word ‘cái’



elements including lexical words denoting particular description

deictic word

  • numeral

  • word denoting estimated quantity

  • word denoting distribution

  • article

  • the word ‘mấy’

  • classifier goes with noun denoting object

  • classifier goes with noun denoting substance

  • classifier goes with noun denoting weather phenomenon

  • classifier used for semantic change

  • classifier denoting generality

  • particularizing classificator

  • epithet 1

  • epithet 2

  • determiner

  • interrogative word

Not all the elements above can appear in the noun phrase at the same time like word denoting ‘all’ can not go with words denoting estimated quantity.

Compare and contrast the structure between English and Vietnamese noun phrase

Because English is the flexible language while Vietnamese is inflexible, it can not avoid having differences between the two languages. However, their structures are similar to each other in some points.
  1. Similarities

First of all, both English noun phrase and Vietnamese noun phrase have the ability of combination. It means that they are the three-part structures (the pre-modification, the post-modification and the head) which have nouns working as the head as you can see it in the example 16 and 30. Moreover, not all of the three parts have to present in the structure. The pre-modification and post-modification are optional and in charge of clearing the meaning of the head, making it more specific. They can be absent in the structure. The girls in all of the beautiful girls in my class or cuốn sách in tất cả những cuốn sách mà Mary đã đọc can stand alone. Maybe the meaning is not as specific as the original but they are grammatical. So only one noun or pronoun can also be considered as noun phrase. Example: tôi (I), bông hoa (flower)...

Secondly, the head noun can influence the subordinate elements and even choose which element can or cannot go with them. For example: In Vietnamese noun phrase, head nouns having the words ‘cái’ preceding are usually followed by deictic words like ‘này’, ‘kia’, ‘ấy’...; In English noun phrase, the article a/an does not precede head nouns in plural. The head noun is also the element which makes the relationship with other parts of the sentences. Such as in example 16: one of the books I like best is Gone with the wind. It is the word one not the word books that influences the form of to be.

Besides two similar points above, English and Vietnamese noun phrase structures are almost different.


First is about the position of elements in the noun phrase. Most of subordinate elements in English stand before head noun while those in Vietnamese stand in two sides. To be more specific, the demonstrative, adjective and noun modifier in English structure precede head noun while those in Vietnamese structure follow head noun.

For example: that expensive Sony camera

cái máy ảnh Sony đắt tiền đó

One more thing is that the order in kinds of adjective element is also different. In English, all the adjectives going before head noun must be arranged accurately: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. Vietnamese is not like that. The position of adjectives is flexible. It is up to the speaker’s purpose. It means that the more the speaker wants to emphasize the word, the closer it is placed to the head noun. For this reason, we can say the phrase ‘a small red sleeping bag’ in many ways like: ‘một cái túi ngủ nhỏ màu đỏ’ or ‘một cái túi ngủ màu đỏ nhỏ’.

Thirdly, in the sentence, it must have the article the/a/an before uncountable noun or single countable noun in English noun phrase. Lacking of this element, the phrase will become ungrammatical. Whereas Vietnamese noun phrase does not have article. Instead of article, most of Vietnamese head nouns require the classifier going before. We can say the book in the table and can not say book in table; quyển sách not sách (in some cases, sách is acceptable).

Because, finally, English is a flexible, head nouns become plural by changing their forms or adding suffixes –s/-es. Example: tooth teeth; book books; box boxes... In Vietnames, head nouns become plural when having words denoting quantity like ‘những’, ‘các’... Example: những bông hoa hồng, các học sinh

Implication in teaching and learning:

Differences above making a lot of difficulties Vietnamese students have to encounter. Because of the language transfer, students may apply knowledge from their native language to a second language. However, that language interference is a source of errors when translating from English into Vietnamese and vice versa: misplacing the demonstrative, adjective and noun modifiers; feeling difficult in finding the right order of English adjectives; forgetting to place the article in English head nouns; not being able to translate some words; forgetting to change the form of the English plural nouns; not being able to identify which noun is countable or uncountable...

To help students avoid these errors, teachers should know what they have to focus on when teaching noun phrase. For example: adjective’s order, when using ‘the’ and when using ‘a/an’, some irregular nouns... Teachers not only provide the structures but also give some explanations if possible.

The most important thing is that students need to be aware of the difference between the two languages’ noun phrase structure. This can help decreasing the errors from the negative transfer.

Nguyen (2004) says noun phrase play an important role in the construction of a sentence. Without knowledge of noun phrase, learners could not produce comprehensible sentences. However, as you can see, each language has its own structure though there are some similar points. That results in some difficulties for the learners to catch it especially when translating from one language to another. Awareness of the similarities and difference between the native and foreign language will help the learners to avoid some errors. For this reason, when trying to compare and contrast the noun phrase structure in Vietnamese and English, I believe this paper will be useful for your language studying and also for me.


Diep, Quang Ban. (2005). Ngu phap tieng Viet. Ha Noi city: Education

Publishing House.

Bress, P. The Noun phrase. Retrieved May 2, 2005, from

Nguyen, T.V.L. Structure of English Noun phrases. Retrieved May, 2004, from

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