Stacked Noun Phrases

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Stacked Noun Phrases :

A noun phrase comprises a noun (obviously) and any associated modifiers:

  • The long and winding road

  • A noun phrase

  • any associated modifiers

The modifiers that accompany a noun can take any number of forms and combination of forms: adjectives, of course ("the tall and brilliant professor"); a participial phrase ("the road following the edge of the frozen lake"); an infinitive phrase ("the first man to walk on the moon"); a modifying clause ("the presentation that he had made the day before"); and prepositional phrases ("the building next to the lodge, over by the highway"). [See below for definitions of participial, infinitive, and prepositional phrases.] Usually, a noun phrase will be all of a piece, all the words that compose it being contiguous with the noun itself. It is possible, however, for a noun phrase to be broken, to become what we call discontinuous. Sometimes part of the noun phrase is delayed until the end of the sentence so that that portion of the phrase (usually modifying phrases — participial or prepositional) can receive end weight or focus. In our first example, for instance (noun phrase in dark red) ,

  • Several accidents have been reported involving passengers falling from trains .

we could have put the entire noun phrase together: "Several accidents involving passengers falling from trains have been reported recently." Shifting the modifying phrases of the red-colored part of the phrase to the end puts additional emphasis on that part. Here are some other examples:

  • A rumor circulated among the staff that he was being promoted to Vice President . (instead of "A rumor that he was being promoted to Vice President circulated among the staff.")
  • The time had come to stop spending money foolishly and to put something away for the future . (instead of "The time to stop spending money foolishly and to put something away for the future had come.")
  • That hard drive was faulty that you sold me . (instead of "That hard drive that you sold me was faulty.")
  • What business is it of yours? (instead of "What business of yours is it? ")

Clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong with a discontinuous noun phrase. One very good reason for a discontinuous noun phrase is to achieve a balance between a subject and its predicate:

  • The story is told that he was once a soldier in French Foreign Legion .

Without the discontinuous noun phrase in the sentence above, we end up with a twelve-word subject, a linking verb, and a one-word predicate — sort of lop-sided.

One thing you want to watch out for with noun phrases is the long compound noun phrase.* This is sometimes called the "stacked noun phrase" or "packed noun phrase." It is common to find one noun modifying another: student body, book cover, water commission. But when we create a long string of such attributive nouns or modifiers, we create difficulties:

  • People who author web-pages have become aware of what is now known as the uniform resource locator protocol problem.

The difficulty we have here is knowing what is modifying what. Also, the reader keeps expecting the string to end, so the energy of the sentence (and our attention) dwindles into a series of false endings. Such phrases are a particular temptation in technical writing. Usually, the solution to an overly extended compound noun phrase is to take the last noun of the series and liberate it from the rest of the string (putting it at the beginning of the sentence) and then to turn at least one of the modifying nouns into a prepositional phrase:

  • The problem with the protocol of uniform resource locators is now recognized by people who author web-pages as. . . .

(This is one situation in which making a sentence longer is probably an advantage.)

A vocative — an addressed person's name or substitute name — is often a single word but sometimes takes the form of a noun phrase. A vocative is always treated as a parenthetical element and is thus set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma or a pair of commas (if it appears within the flow of a sentence). When vocatives are proper nouns (usually the case), they are also referred to as "nouns of address." Vocatives are like adverbs: they can pop up almost anywhere in the sentence. Do not, however, get into the habit of throwing commas at people's names; unless the name refers to someone who is actually being addressed, it is not a vocative and will not necessarily be parenthetical:

  • He told Jorge to turn the boat around.
  • Jorge, turn the boat around
Quirk and Greenbaum enumerate four different kinds of vocatives:
  1. Single names, with or without a title: Jorge, Mr. Valdez, Dr. Valdez, Uncle, Grandma. Dr. Valdez, will you please address the graduates?
  2. The personal pronoun you (not a polite form of address): You, put down that gun! The second person pronoun is sometimes combined with other words (but the result is often rather rude and is never used in formal prose ["You over there, hurry up!" "You with the purple hair and silver nose rings, get back in line!"]) The indefinite pronouns can also serve as a vocative: Call an ambulance, somebody! Quick, anybody! Give me a hand!
  3. Appellatives (what we call people) of endearment ("Darling," "Sweetheart," "My dear," "Love") Come sit next to me, my dear.; of respect ("Sir," "Madam," "Your Honor," "Ladies and gentlemen") I would ask you, Sir, never to do that again.; of profession or status ("Professor," "Mr. President," "Madam Chairman," "Coach") Please, Coach, let me play for a while.
  4. Nominal clause: Whoever is making that noise, stop it now.

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