The English Noun Phrase: an empirical study

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Final Project Report (summary)

Research Issues

I. Structural

  1. Headedness in NPs. In particular problematic cases like:
    1. sort/kind/type-of constructions: a sort of artist, these sort of questions
    2. close apposition: the director Orson Welles, the number four
    3. of-apposition: the city of Rome, the notion of appositions
    4. binominal constructions: that fool of a professor, an angel of a child
    5. pseudopartitives: a number of people, a pound of apples, a glass of wine
  2. Heaviness
    1. The relation between extraposition, heaviness/complexity and informational content (focus/saliency)
      • Principles underlying extraposition from the noun phrase:
        • PP-extraposition
        • Clausal extraposition
      • Both out of the NP (to end of a clause) and within NP (to end of a NP)
    2. The relation between heaviness/complexity and informational content and the position of the possessor (prenominal/postnominal)
  3. The distinction/relationship between postmodification, complementation and apposition. The distinction/relationship between
    • Complements and restrictive modifiers
    • Restrictive and non-restrictive postmodifiers
    • Non-restrictive postmodification and (loose) apposition
  4. The relationship between NP types and their distribution in the clause structure. Includes research questions on Functional aspects of the NP:
    • The variation in the kind of grammatical functions that NPs realise, and the explanation for the observed patterns.
    • What relationship can be observed between grammatical function and NP complexity? (See also heaviness.)
  5. The syntactic description of the English determiner system.
    • Interdependence between determination and postmodification

II. Textual

  1. The distribution of NP types in different textual categories.
  2. NP complexity: does it vary significantly between speech and writing, and do the two modes exhibit internal variation?
  3. The relationship between NP complexity (see e.g. Quirk et al. 1985: 1351), function and text type. This is part of the discussion throughout the study.

The Final Result

The final result of the research supported by the award is a publishable manuscript of approximately 410 pages. Part I forms the bulk of the study: apart from the fact that it contains more numerous and more complex research questions than the other parts, there is also a huge amount of literature on these issues. Given the functional (communicative-cognitive) approach taken to the analysis of the empirical data, it was felt that in the interest of coherence and manageability, the research questions originally included in the separate sections on textual and functional matters were better included in the chapters dealing with the research issues addressed in the part on structure.

For the same reason it was decided not to include a separate section dealing with the English determiner system (Question 1.5). From the point of view of the overall structure and organisation of the monograph, we considered it preferable to discuss the determiners extensively throughout the study, integrating their treatment in a natural way into the various chapters dealing with different problematic constructions. Thus, in each of the chapters of the monograph extensive attention is given to the form, role, scope and position of the determiner in the constructions dealt with. As such, a discussion of the English determiner forms an important part of the research project as a whole.

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This monograph has now been published as:

Keizer, E. (2007). The English Noun Phrase: The Nature of Linguistic Categorization, Studies in English Language (series). Cambridge: CUP. »Order from CUP

   Chapter 1: Introduction
   Chapter 2: Key notions
   Chapter 3: A classification of sort/kind/type-constructions
   Chapter 4: Close appositions
   Chapter 5: N-of-N constructions
   Chapter 6: Complemention and modification
   Chapter 7: Discontinuous NPs
   Chapter 8: Possessive constructions
   Chapter 9: Conclusion

Summary of the chapters and specification of the research questions addressed:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Describes the aims and objectives of the study, the theoretical framework and overall approach, as well as the methods used. It also includes a description of the ICE-GB Corpus.

Chapter 2: Key notions

A detailed discussion of the most important notions and principles used in the study and an overview of the relevant literature. The first section largely prepares for the discussion in Part 1 of the book, concentrating on structural issues (e.g. headedness, heaviness (end weight), fuzziness). The other two main sections introduce the notions used in the Part 2 of the book. The first of these deals with pragmatic notions such as informational status, topic/focus, old/new, shared knowledge, salience, end focus and the cooperative principle; the second with cognitive notions such as knowledge retrieval and storage (in the form of frames, schemata and PDP models), activation, conceptualisation and prototype effects. (53 pages)

Chapter 3: A classification of sort/kind/type-constructions

Questions I.1i and II1&2
A detailed examination of sort/kind/type-constructions, based on a large number of syntactic, semantic and pragmatic features, shows that the binary distinction made in most existing theories (between binominal and qualifying sort/kind/type-constructions) leaves many occurrences of sort/kind/type-constructions in the ICE-GB corpus unaccounted for. It is therefore proposed that a third type of construction be distinguished; this construction can either be seen as a separate major category (combining features of both other categories) or as a subcategory of ('conventionalised', non-prototypical) binominal constructions. (46 pages)

Chapter 4: Close appositions

Questions I.1ii and I.3:
In previous research various analyses of close appositions (e.g. the poet Burns, Burns the poet) have been proposed, all of which are shown to be inadequate. In particular the questions of (syntactic and semantic) headedness and the referential status of the two nominal elements has proved to be problematic.

In this chapter both existing and new evidence (from anaphoricity and (in)definiteness) is presented which suggests that, unlike what has been assumed in most accounts, neither element of the apposition has independent reference. As far as headedness is concerned, the problem largely consisted in the fact that the available evidence seems confusing and inconclusive. It is shown, however, that if we abandon the idea of close appositions as one homogeneous group of constructions, a pattern clearly arises. Additional evidence from syntax and semantics confirms the view that three different types of close apposition must be distinguished, each with its own analysis.

Finally, the present chapter not only includes constructions that are often ignored (Lord Byron, actor Orson Welles, the name Isis), but in addition offers a detailed description of the various uses of these different types of close apposition, which also explains the various restrictions on their use. (52 pages) - available for PDF download

Chapter 5: N-of-N constructions

Questions I.1iii-v
This chapter is concerned with constructions consisting of two nominal elements separated by the element of. Despite this superficial similarity these constructions are shown to differ on a number of accounts, such as headedness (left-headed, right-headed or hybrid), status of the nominal elements (functional or referential N1, referential or non-referential N2), status of the element of (preposition or linking element) and the (semantic) relation between the two nominal elements (modification, complementation, predication, qualification, quantification etc.). On the basis of these differences a number of subtypes have been distinguished, which each have been given their own analysis and underlying representation, reflecting their distinctive formal features:

  1. left-headed noun phrases:
    1. head-modifier: the problems of the world;
    2. head-complement constructions: the father of the bride;
    3. partitive constructions: one of the boys;
    4. head-qualifier constructions: a book of comics.
  2. appositional or binominal noun phrases
    1. head + NP-complement: the city of Rome;
    2. modifier-head: that fool of a doctor;
  3. pseudo-partitive constructions:
    1. purely quantificational pseudo-partitive constructions: a lot of people;
    2. quantificational pseudo-partitive constructions with referential first noun: a small piece of metal:
    3. referential (head-complement/qualifier) constructions: a half-filled cup of coffee;
    4. hybrid pseudo-partitive constructions: a steaming bowl of food.

This classification gives the impression of a neat categorisation, of a number of separate categories, each with its own distinctive analysis. The discussion throughout this chapter, however, makes clear that such a view is too optimistic and that in reality there are many ambiguities and 'in-between' cases, the categorisation and analysis of which proves problematic. The categories distinguished are therefore better seen as a description of prototypes (best members sharing all the necessary and sufficient features), while allowance must be made for the existence of non-prototypical cases. (115 pages)

Chapter 6: Complemention and modification

Question I.3 and I.4
This chapter deals with the often applied but undeniably problematic distinction within NPs between complements (e.g. the PP in the father of my friend) and modifiers (e.g. the PP in the house of my friend). On the basis of a detailed discussion of the differences in meaning and formal behaviour of such constructions from the corpus, the following questions are addressed:

  • Is it useful to make the distinction?
  • Is it feasible to make the distinction? (if so, which 'tests' can be used?)
  • What should be the main basis for the distinction (semantics, syntax or pragmatic and cognitive factors)?
  • Is it plausible to assume that the distinction is strict and invariable?

In answering these questions use is made not only of linguistic evidence, but also of evidence from psycholinguistic and cognitive studies, in particular those relating to the way in which humans store information in, and retrieve information from, the mind (schema/frame-theory, network approaches). It is concluded that, despite a number of difficulties, the traditional distinction between complements and modifiers remains valid. The reason that attempts to define these categories in terms of a number of strict (semantic and syntactic) criteria have failed is simply that the distinctions in question are not strict and clear-cut, but gradual. This, in turn, is due to the fact that the differences we intuitively feel exist between certain PPs reflect a difference in the activation status of the concepts denoted. Since differences in activation are a matter of degree, so is the difference between the linguistic expressions reflecting the activation status of a concept. Consequently, the only viable approach to explaining the differences observed is a cognitive one. As shown in this chapter, both schema-theory and the network approach provide useful insights into to the nature of the distinctions in question, as well as into the why and the how of their development. Moreover, Rosch's recognition that categories in the mind are organised around prototypes provides us with a way of accounting for the fact that even among what are generally regarded as relational nouns, or as complements, some seem to be better examples of the category than others. (48 pages)

Chapter 7: Discontinuous NPs

Questions I.2i and II.2&3
This chapter deals with the basic principles underlying a speaker's choice between a discontinuous term (e.g no approval has yet been given for the proposal) and a continuous one (no approval for the proposal has yet been given). In trying to define the circumstances which favour or trigger displacement (or 'extraposition') of part of an NP, linguists frequently invoke the principles of structural weight (complexity) and communicative status (information value/focality). In addition, there are those linguists who believe that the only fruitful way of explaining the complexity of word order variation is to assume that word order is determined by a number of interacting and possibly competing principles and preferences. In this chapter, a detailed evaluation of existing 'single-principle' theories shows that these cannot account for the actual use of (dis)continuous phrases as found in the corpus. It describes and analyses displaced constituents of various forms (e.g. complement clauses, restrictive relative clauses, prepositional phrases), both within the NP and from the NP into clause-final position. The major conclusion is that a 'multifunctional' approach is the only viable approach to account for the observed variation in constituent ordering. In addition, an attempt is made to establish which other factors, apart from complexity and focality, may play a role in determining word order, as well as how some of these principles interact. (40 pages)

Chapter 8: Possessive constructions

Questions I.2ii, I.4 and II2&3:
This chapter addresses the question of what determines a speaker's choice between a prenominal possessive (the author's opinion) and a post-nominal of-construction (the opinion of the author). Most traditional linguists give a long list of factors which may play a role; they do not, however, offer an overall analysis of these constructions which addresses the interaction between these factors. Theoretical linguists prefer to ascribe the choice to one basic underlying (semantic, formal or pragmatic) principle (compare heaviness and displacement).

A close examination of a large number of examples from the corpus shows that the only way to account for the use of these constructions is by taking a multifunctional approach. At the same time, however, it is argued that some factors are more basic (outweigh) other factors. It appears that this is clearer for prenominal possessives than for postnominal of-constructions: whereas the former can be uniformly accounted for in terms of the topicality/activatedness of the relation between the possessor and the possessee, in the case of postnominal of-constructions, any factor can be outweighed by a combination of other factors, and the exact way in which these factors interact is not always entirely clear. (49 pages)

Chapter 9: Conclusion

Major overall conclusions:

  • For each of the research questions addressed the outcome is that the constructions in question (form, meaning and use) can only be explained by considering not only syntactic and semantic factors, but also pragmatic and cognitive factors. To attain pragmatic adequacy, a proper examination of the context in which the constructions are used, including a recognition of speakers' and hearers' intentions and assumptions is indispensable. For any approach to be cognitively adequate, the proposed analysis must be in keeping with what is known, or considered plausible, from a language and information processing point of view. It is therefore concluded that the only viable approach is a highly interdisciplinary one, drawing not only on the various linguistic subdisciplines (syntax, semantics, pragmatics), but, in addition, on research in the field of discourse analysis and on the findings of psycholinguistic and cognitive studies.
  • In dealing with complex phenomena like binominal constructions, word order and heaviness, it is not possible to give a satisfactory explanation in terms of one underlying principle only (whether syntactic, semantic, pragmatic or cognitive). Although a 'single-principle' account is no doubt theoretically attractive, data from actual language use show that utterances are produced and interpreted through the interaction of a number of different, and sometimes competing, principles. As a result, language and language use exhibit prototypicality effects, which means that classifications and categorisations, no matter how necessary and useful to both the linguist and the language user, should not be seen as strict and invariable, but as fuzzy and flexible.

The only difficulty encountered during the period of the award concerned the way in which the breadth of the aims set out in the original project proposal were best tackled. The research issues specified at the beginning of the project were divided into three categories: structural, textual and functional. It soon become apparent that to (a) do justice to the issues in question, (b) avoid overlap and (c) to enhance overall coherence, it would be better not to approach the issues raised separately from three different angles, but to choose a primary angle (the structural one) and to incorporate all questions relating to textual and functional issues into the discussion of the structural aspects of the English NP. Consequently, in the annual progress report a somewhat different set-up and subdivision was proposed, covering by and large the same issues, but organised in a different manner. As a result, it may seem that the final project is more restricted in scope than the original proposal. In reality, certain aspects have been singled out for more detailed analysis than others. This does not necessarily mean that the original design was too broad or optimistic; nor that the results are in any way unsatisfactory. All it means is that the principal researcher has – quite deliberately – opted for a more detailed analysis of some of the questions raised than may originally have been envisaged. The in-depth treatment of the material employed throughout the project, including detailed discussions and evaluations of existing proposals, as well as a preference for a highly consistent approach to the various research questions has resulted in a monograph characterised, perhaps, more by depth than by breadth. We consider this a merit rather than a weakness.

Output of research


Keizer, M.E. (2002). Review of Inge de Mönnick, On the Move: the mobility of constituents in the English noun phrase: a multi-method approach. English Language and Linguistics 6/1, 210-216.

Keizer, M.E.(2002) (with Bas Aarts, Mariangela Spinillo and Sean Wallis). Which or What? A study of interrogative determiners in present-day English. In Andrew Wilson, Paul Rayson and Anthony McEnery (eds.). Corpus Linguistics by the Lune: studies for Geoffrey Leech. (Lodz Studies in Language series). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Keizer, M.E. (to appear, with Bas Aarts, David Denison and Gergana Popova) Fuzzy grammar: a reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*Keizer, M.E. (forthcoming). Aspects of the English noun phrase: structure, cognition and communication.

*Keizer, M.E. (forthcoming). Close appositions in English. Submitted for publication in Syntax and Morphology in Functional Grammar: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Functional Grammar.

*Keizer, M.E. (forthcoming, with David Denison). Sort of-constructions: grammar and change.


Talk on sort/kind/type-of constructions at the Functional Grammar Colloquium, Amsterdam, 13 October 2001.

Talk on Close apposition at the Functional Grammar Colloquium, Amsterdam, 15 Feb 2002.

Presentation at the 10th International Conference on Functional Grammar, University of Amsterdam, 26-29 June 2002.

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