In most dictionaries and grammars, 'noun phrase' is defined by the function it performs, i.e., a subject, an object or a predicative complement. But this definition is not quite helpful considering this from CGEL*:

In addition to their prototypical function as complements in clause structure, NPs may appear with a number of other functions, including the following:

[6] i I was talking [to the doctor]. [complement in PP]

ii I like [Sue’s analysis of the passive construction]. [subject-determiner in NP]

iii Fred arrived the day before yesterday. [adjunct in clause]

iv The nail was [three inches long]. [modifier in AdjP]

v Fred arrived [a whole day late]. [modifier in AdvP]

vi The wreck was discovered [a mile under the sea]. [modifier in PP]

vii She was writing a treatise on [the opera ‘Carmen’]. [modifier in NP]

viii I finally met his wife, a distinguished anthropologist. [supplement]

ix Elizabeth, your taxi is here. [vocative]

The 'function' of 'noun phrase' discussed by most dictionaries and grammars is its syntactic function, which, as is shown above, can be quite messy and therefore doesn't really help neatly define 'noun phrase'.

Fortunately, there is another function of 'noun phrase' that is not syntactic. In any given sentence, 'noun phrase' refers to something, be it concrete or abstract or animate or inanimate.

For example, in [6i] above, the doctor refers to a specific person who was a doctor and was being talked to by me. Similarly, in [6iii], the day before yesterday refers to a specific day when Fred arrived. And so on.

In essence, what a noun phrase refers to in a given sentence can be any concrete object(s) or any abstract concept(s) or any animal(s) or any inanimate thing(s).

If you're to use a single term to describe what a noun phrase can refer to in any given sentence, what can it be?

Please note that that term should be able to encompass "any concrete object(s) or any abstract concept(s) or any animal(s) or any inanimate thing(s)".

I was thinking about 'object' and 'thing', but the problem is, 'object' has the nuance of excluding abstract concepts, and 'thing' has the nuance of excluding animate objects.

*The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Pullum (p 327)

  • 1
    You need to keep reading. It’s one of the best grammars ever written. Pay extra attention to pages 399-410.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 13:57
  • @AlexB. All CGEL tells me in pages 399-410 is the only answer I got is wrong. That is, NPs can be used both referentially and non-referentially.
    – JK2
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 3:39

2 Answers 2


The term for what a nominal refers to is referent.


Unfortunately, the idea that we can define nouns or noun phrases through meaning won't stand close scrutiny. Very often a noun phrase will have no referent at all. For example, in the phrase:

  • It's strange that she didn't call back.

Here the noun phrase it is a dummy subject, merely filling that syntactic position that would be occupied in canonical sentence by the clause that she didn't call back:

  • That she didn't call back is strange.

What we need to identify a noun phrase is a combination of different bits of syntactic information. Syntactic functions, of course, can be useful. For example, all of the NPs in the CamGEL excerpt could be used as Subjects, Objects or appended with a genitive clitic and used as Determiners. So that kind of info is helpful for determining the phrasal category of noun phrases.

Of course, being ultimately headed by a noun is a good indication that a phrase is a noun phrase. But to determine whether something is a noun or not, we again need to use a variety of syntactic information. Here's a post on how to determine whether an item is a noun (in English).

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