What grammatical feature is being used, when we say something like, "I drink a cup of coffee"? In this sentence we have one noun modifying another noun, "coffee" modifying "cup". Would "cup" or even "a cup of" be an example of a determiner? If not, how would you describe these X of Y sentences in grammatical terms, where X and Y are nouns.

As a very last question, would the grammatical terms used be the same in both English in German, where in German you would say, "Ich trinke eine Tassee Kaffee"?

  • There are no modifiers in “I drink a cup of coffee”. “A cup of coffee” is a noun phrase with the noun “cup” functioning as head and the PP “of coffee” as its complement. “Coffee” is complement (not modifier) of the preposition “of”. The noun "coffee" within the PP is called an 'oblique'. The only determiner is the indefinite article “a” which determines the whole NP as indefinite.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 16:10
  • 1
    It is OK to say that a PP modifies (restricts) its head NP. In English, oblique and objective cases are the same.
    – amI
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 21:44
  • @aml Agreed, e.g. "the shop around the corner". This helps modify/restrict the shop you are referring to.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 2:08

1 Answer 1


"Cup of" is not a determiner for "coffee"; rather, "of coffee" is a restriction of "cup". 'X of Y' means that Y possesses X (Y has X) (X is a part of Y). This is clear in expressions like "leaf of tree" or "top of table". It is less clear in "box of books" or "cup of coffee" because X is a container of Y. We might use 'with' instead of 'of', but 'of' uses simpler phonemes. English can specify just the container with "book box" or "coffee cup", but not the entire set sans preposition: *"box books" or *"cup coffee".

  • Is there a grammatical term for the X of Y construction? Or for the separate parts?
    – ktm5124
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 21:27
  • 'of coffee' is a prepositional phrase (PP). The preposition ('of') establishes a reference between X and Y. The referent (Y) is the 'object' of the PP.
    – amI
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 21:38
  • Ah, perhaps it is that simple. I thought that X of Y may have been a special case, somewhat like construct chains in Hebrew. There is also the aspect of quantity: cup quantifies coffee, whereas top does not quantify table. But maybe there is no special case, here, and it's just a noun followed by a PP.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 21:42
  • "cup of sugar" is more likely to denote quantity than "cup of coffee".
    – amI
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 21:48

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