I'm really struggling to 'get' two things on my linguistics course right now, which is heads of phrases and classifiers.

I understand that a head determines the nature of a phrase, but I just can't seem to pick the right thing in activities. I.e. in the sentence 'the disturbance between the North and the South' I underlined North and the South as the the head, but my tutor told me it's 'disturbance'.

Secondly, can someone please explain what classifiers are?!

  • For your purposes, it will for the start suffice this: when you suspect that you found the head, try the NP is a kind of Head. Thus for your example you see that it is a "kind of disturbance", not a "kind of North or South". Oct 19, 2015 at 0:28
  • Welcome to Linguistics SE!
    – Alenanno
    Oct 19, 2015 at 10:37

3 Answers 3


The head of a phrase is "what" refers to the same entity the whole phrase refers to, so in your sentence 'the disturbance between the North and the South', that noun is indeed, disturbance.

In 'the man with a nice suit's dog', it's dog.

More specifically, the head of a phrase is the element that determines the syntactic function of the whole phrase. So in a noun phrase it's usually a noun or a pronoun, in an adjective phrase, it's an adjective, a verb for a verb phrase and so on. The head usually comes before its dependents, which in my example above is "the man with a nice suit", although this is not always the case.

Classifiers are not really present in European languages (English included), but you can have constructions that support such a feature, for example with uncountable nouns: five heads of cattle.

Japanese however, among others, use classifiers (typically called counters) in more cases. Each classifier is used according to the referent (classifier is bold):

  • 5 (gofun), five minutes.
  • 2 (ninen), two years.
  • 子供四 (kodomo yo nin), four children (literally, children four people-classifier)

Japanese has classifiers for cylindrical things, flat, long thin objects, small animals, birds, mechanical, etc. You can see more in the table for Japanese counters.

  • 1
    No, a noun does not refer to the same thing that its noun phrase refers to, because a noun has no reference. For instance, definite pronouns have the same reference as their antecedents, and their antecedents are noun phrases, never nouns. Why? A coreferent has to have reference, and a noun does not have reference, therefore a noun cannot be a coreferent. Nouns can be antecedents, but only for indefinite pronouns, precisely because indefinite pronouns do not require their antecedents to be coreferential.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 18, 2015 at 18:53
  • @GregLee: What's an antecedent for an indefinite pronoun? Oct 19, 2015 at 0:22
  • @IvanKapitonov: Antecedent for the indefinite pronoun "one", following McCawley, is an N-bar (N"). That is a lexical noun, a noun together with a noun complement, or a modified N'. E.g., "I bought [NP a [N' new [N' blue [N' car]]] ], and my brother bought [NP an [N' old [N' one = blue car]] ]." I haven't thought about other indefinite pronouns.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 19, 2015 at 0:44
  • 1
    @Araucaria Maybe that's ill defined, you're right, because I later specify that the head is a noun in case of a noun phrase, an adjective in an adjective phrase, and so on. I fixed it.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 28, 2016 at 11:26
  • 1
    @Araucaria Uhm, not sure about that :D I fixed it.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 28, 2016 at 11:42

I have grave doubts about the general proposition that a head determines the nature of a phrase, but there are easy cases where there is a coincidence of properties between phrase and head. The example you give is an easy case, because verb agreement can tell you the number of the noun phrase "the disturbance between the North and the South" if you construct an example sentence where it is subject:

The disturbance between the North and the South proves that economic circumstances dominate.

Because it's "proves" and not "prove", we know that the subject noun phrase is singular. Now, compare the numbers of "disturbance", singular, and "the North and the South", plural. Evidently, it is the singular "disturbance" which has determined the number of the subject noun phrase, so it must be the head.

  • 1
    It's a standard view in formal syntax that the head determines morphosyntactic properties of the whole phrase.
    – Alex B.
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:44
  • @AlexB. I don't know how a view gets to be "standard". There are several types of NP that do not have nouns as heads: headless relative constructions, infinitives, and gerunds. The phrase following auxiliary be is sometime classed as a verb phrase (for good reason), though it need not have a verb. Locative there, here are distributed like prepositional phrases, though they have no prepositions.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 19, 2015 at 20:54

Mong is a classifier language. A classifier to us, is not a counter word, but an introduction of a noun that puts that noun into similar characteristics as other applicable nouns that are being introduced by the same classifier. Mong language also has articles that can be used with the same noun that the classifier is being used. The meaning will change depending on whether the noun is being introduced by a classifier or an article. Dlaim is a classifier signifying that the nouns it introduces will have the same characteristics as a sheet. Dlaim ntawv is a sheet of paper, dlaim ntaub is a sheet of cloth, dlaim choj is a sheet of a blanket. When you use the article tug with those words, tug ntawv is the particular alphabet character, tug ntaub is the particular roll of linen that will be used to make clothing, tug choj is the bridge over a river. While saib is an infinitive to watch, dlaim saib is a screen to watch movie, learn a lesson, etc. Tug saib is the watcher, the person that watch/inspect/etc. of the subject.

This paper by Hiroki Nomoto will help to explain more. https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/148854/Nomoto_umn_0130E_13563.pdf;sequence=1

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