Teaching The Noun Phrase In English English Language Essay

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English syntax presents the nominal group or noun phrase (NP) as a basic constituent of the clause (S). Phrase Structure rules normally represent S as consisting of a Noun Phrase and a Verb Phrase (VP).

(1) S  NP VP

The constituents of the clause or sentence are then further broken down into their constituents. Yet the proposal of other theories to capture the constituents of S has resulted in more complex but more precise ways of explaining how the constituents of a sentence relate to each other. An extension on X-bar theory by Santorini and Kroch in their online textbook "The syntax of natural language: An online introduction using the Trees program" actually identifies NPs as Determiner Phrases or DPs. Although this paper will not delve into the layers of complexity advocated by such theorists, it does move away from the traditional strategies of teaching nouns and NPs and seeks to ratify approaches for introducing the teaching of NPs in the ESL/EFL context. We shall, therefore, describe the structure of the NP, mentioning the categories of count and non-count (or mass) nouns; and finally prescribe a viable teaching option with respect to the noun phrase.

Nouns and the structure of NPs

Traditional grammar defines the noun as "the name of a person, place, animal or thing". This vague definition succumbs quite readily to criticism the moment we move away from holding it high in the canon of English grammar to one of closer examination. Huddleston (84) lists a few properties that help to classify this word class:

It contains amongst its most central members those words that denote persons or concrete objects

Its members head phrases - noun phrases - which characteristically function as subject or object in clause structure and refer to participants in the situation described in the clause, to the actor, patient, recipient, and so on.

It is the class to which the categories of number, gender and case have their primary application

It becomes significantly easier for us to define the noun and subsequently the NP by looking at its function and distribution in the clause.

Brinton and Brinton (193) expand the NP in a table that has been reproduced below:

Table 1. Expansions of NP

NP 

N

dogs

Det N

the dogs

Det A N

the large dogs

Det AP N

the loudly barking dogs

Det N PP

the dog in the yard

Det A N PP

the ferocious dog behind the fence

Det AP N PP

the wildly yapping dog on the sofa

Pro

He

PN

Goldy

In all of the expansions except the final two the head of the NP - the noun (N) - is obligatory. In the final two expansions the head has been substituted by a pronoun and a Proper noun respectively. These two are still subsumed under the category of noun so we can still say that the head subsists to some degree.

The broadest expansion level of the NP, Det AP N PP presents categories that may be grouped in relation to the noun head of the phrase. Therefore, we may talk about pre-head dependents and post-head dependents. Huddleston asserts that "an NP will consist of a noun as head, alone or accompanied by one or more dependents…pre-head and post-head dependents" (85). He mentions that the pre-head dependents may be determiners and/or modifiers and that the post-head dependents consist of complements, modifiers and peripheral dependents. Where Huddleston calls these elements dependents (either pre-head or post-head), Downing and Locke, in order to simplify matters, label them modifiers (403). They locate the head of the phrase as the central element around which are located the pre-modifiers and post-modifiers.

Figure 1 shows a diagrammatic representation of the general constituents of the NP.

Figure 1. Diagrammatic Representation of an NP

Noun (Head)

Post-modifiers

Specifiers

Pre-modifiers

Although the number of determiners is quite limited (Huddleston (86) states that there are approximately three determiner slots), there seems to be less restriction on what can fill the modifier position.

Determiners have the form of: (α) determinatives - the, some, which, etc (recall that 'determiner' is used as the name of a function, 'determinative' of a class); (β) Poss Ps - the dog's, your father's…(γ) cardinal numerals: one, two…(δ) embedded NPs expressing quantification: a dozen…a few…An NP may contain up to three determiners… (Huddleston 86).

Downing and Locke (404) also suggest that the relatively restricted list of determiners (articles, demonstratives, possessives, Wh-words, distributives and quantifiers) can be put into three broad categories:

Central determinatives: the articles, the demonstratives, the possessives, the quantifiers

Pre-determinatives: all, both, twice, double, such

Post-determinatives: the ordinal numerals and the semi-determinatives (same, other, former, latter, own)

As said before, Santorini and Kroch in Chapter 5 of their online book argue a case for DPs. They believe that "nouns…cannot in general function as arguments on their own, but must be accompanied by a determiner". This makes sense even if there is a zero marker for the determiner. They go on to say to caution the reader:

…the traditional term 'noun phrase' is a misnomer since noun phrases are maximal projections of D rather than of N. Because the term 'noun phrase' is firmly established in usage, we continue to use it as an informal synonym for 'DP'. However, in order to avoid confusion, we will use the term 'NP' only to refer to the subconstituent of a noun phrase that is the complement of a determiner. We will never use it to refer to an entire noun phrase (that is, a DP)

The NP can also be called "the complement of a determiner" as suggested by Santorini and Kroch, but in order to keep concepts simple we should stick to the distinction as prescribed by the diagram above where the determiner position is synonymous with specifier.

The pre-modifier position (labelled AP in Brinton and Brinton's largest expansion above) can be filled with a number of classes: adjectives (and adverbs), nouns, participial forms of verbs and possessives. Due to the recursive property of this position, there is a complex ordering sequence of these classes. This can be seen quite clearly if we solely look at the ordering of adjectives (Parrot 54):

Table 2. Order of adjectives in the NP

1 Size

2 Shape

3 Colour

4 Origin

5 Material

6 Use

Noun

a

large

white

loaf

a

sleeveless

blue

woollen

pullover

Small

Spanish

serving

dishes

The order also places the opinion of the speaker (subjective aspect) before a description (objective aspect) of the object.

The post-modifiers, on the other hand, can exist as complements, modifiers and peripheral dependents (Huddleston 93). X-bar theory accounts for these elements by the use of the terms adjunct and complement. In the diagram below, these post-head elements are shown to the right of the X' circles.

XP

X'

X'

Specifier

Adjunct

Complement

X'

X

Head Figure 2. Template for an XP in X-bar theory

Whereas adjuncts are seen as optional modifiers, complements are shown to be obligatory. The diagram shows their differing positions within the hierarchy of the phrase (XP), where the complement appears closer to the head. Although this information may be helpful for the teacher, it would be better to stay away from X-bar theory when trying to explain phrase formation to the student unless the student has already had interaction with it.

One cannot mention the noun, and even the noun phrase, without mentioning an aspect of nouns that is relatively unique to them - their countability. Allan mentions that the notion of countability varies and has to do with the perception of the speaker and listener:

…that which is countable is denumerable. Although countability is a linguistic category, it typically has perceptual correlations: the reference of what is linguistically countable is ordinarily perceived in terms of one or more discrete entities. What is uncountable is typically…perceived as an undifferentiated unity. (565)

The countability of the noun is linked to its ability to be inflected for plurality and is also linked to the use of certain determiners. Uncountable or mass nouns in English are not normally pluralised unless the speaker is using some type of jargon peculiar to a field. However, the notion of countability also carries across into the NP. If the noun, as head of the phrase, is countable, it also means that the NP would be countable as well.

Teaching the NP to ESL/EFL students

The NP should not be introduced explicitly to low-level proficiency ESL/EFL students. Although the students may have some unconscious knowledge of the NP in their own languages, it is a more appropriate approach to teach Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level students about the workings of the NP to improve their stylistic capabilities and also to improve their communicative options. The teaching of the NP, like everything else, must be contextualised and not necessarily bogged down by solely teaching the students grammar.

It is quite important to link the teaching of the NP to previous knowledge gained by the students so that its syntactic structure can be used as a refresher for students with respect to things like count and non-count nouns, adverbials and determiners.

Students can be taught inductively by teachers where sentences are put on the board and students can also be asked to identify the syntactic categories that make up the phrase and also the apparent rules for the ordering of categories. Nevertheless, an indispensible teaching tool in this area would be to let the students be these categories. What do I mean by be? Well, if we look singly at the AP constituent of the NP and wish to help students to grasp the order of the adjectives (as listed in the table above), the teacher can put an AP on the board containing quite a number of these adjectives. Then random students can be asked to come to the front of the class and the teacher can assign the students a word. The students can write this word on a page and stick it to their chests or hold them up. Subsequently, the teacher can ask the students to move around in a line to represent the phrase, swapping positions with each other and encouraging the class to read the phrase according to the new orders. The teacher will have to have some knowledge of APs and be able to explain why random ordering of lexical items is unacceptable in APs.

This exercise can also be done with NPs to some extent. The teacher can use it to show the recursivity of the modifier positions especially (vis-à-vis embedded clauses and other modifiers) and to solidify the ordering of the constituents. This kinaesthetic approach can also be complemented by a musical one where a song can be used to show the meaning as well as the functional use of NPs. Gardner's Multiple Intelligences is a good tool to take advantage of when teaching these primarily grammar-oriented topics, but calls on a lot from the teacher in the realm of creativity and preparation.

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