I'm trying to determine what the following types of phrases (in bold within the sentences below) would be called. I want to say they're noun phrases, but I may be wrong. To me, these resolve to nouns that can be used as subjects or objects, so that's why I think they might be noun phrases, but they're more complex than examples of noun phrases I am finding on line.

  • How the west was won is something that they still debate.
  • What it was was not clear to me then, and wouldn't be for years to come.
  • I can show you how to tie a tie.
  • She had a tendency to promise that which should never be promised.
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    They’re subordinate clauses – except the last one, which is a noun phrase consisting of a head pronoun (that) and a following subordinate clause. You’re right that they can be resolved to (pro)nouns, but that doesn’t make them noun phrases (a phrase with a noun as its head). Jul 19, 2019 at 20:33
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    Noun phrase can also be used to refer to the use of a clause or phrase, as subject or object, for instance. The wh-clauses in (1-2) are subject NP clauses, and the one in (3) is an object NP clause. Clauses like this are often called "complement clauses". So the answer is that these are noun phrases, and something else as well. Jul 19, 2019 at 21:07
  • All those are NPs. @JanusBahsJacquet would be right if NP were used to mean a phrase with a noun as its head. But it's not.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 20, 2019 at 3:35
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    @GregLee It certainly is! Some people may use the term to refer to clauses as well, but that in no way means that the term noun phrase is not used to mean a phrase with a noun as its head – that remains the most basic and uncontroversial definition. I would call examples 1 and 3 zero-head NPs, 2 a fused-head NP, and 4 a NP. Jul 20, 2019 at 9:45
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    It's a movie.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 20, 2019 at 20:14

1 Answer 1

  1. How the west was won is something that they still debate.
  2. What it was was not clear to me then, and wouldn't be for years to come.
  3. I can show you how to tie a tie.
  4. She had a tendency to promise that which should never be promised.

There are some grammars which cannot separate out the grammatical relations of a word or phrase from its internal structure. In other words they cannot separate out the job that a word or phrase is doing in a particular sentence, from the question of what type of word or phrase, that phrase is. Subscribers to these sorts of grammars get stuck when pressed on the anomalies that these types of analyses throw up and often start talking about phrases which are 'upstairs noun phrases but downstairs preposition phrases' and things like this. They also denigrate the importance of part of speech categories and the categorisation of phrases, because their grammars have little they can can usefully say about these issues.

For grammars such as these, the strings above are all noun phrases, merely on the basis that they are the subjects or direct objects of the sentences they occur in. Notice that the addition of the label NP, or noun phrase, to this description tells us absolutely nothing at all. It adds nothing that we didn't already know when we decided it was the subject or object of the sentence, because all the label NP means in such a grammar is subject or object (of a verb or preposition). This label "NP" is utterly redundant and completely useless.

However, there are also grammars in which the function subject, and the phrase category noun phrase are completely separate things. In such grammars a noun phrase is a phrase built around a noun or pronoun, whereas subject is a grammatical relation telling us about the phrase's position and function in the clause or sentence structure. For such grammars many different types of phrase and clause can occur as subject:

  1. Elephants like donuts. (Noun phrase as subject)
  2. After Christmas would be best (Preposition phrase as subject)
  3. Very carefully is how I wanted you to drive (Adverb phrase as subject)
  4. Smoking cigarettes is bad for you. (Verb phrase as subject)
  5. For him to do that would be inconvenient. (Non-finite clause as subject)
  6. That he was continuously late was a problem for us. (Finite clause as subject)

Such analyses can predict various things about the phrases in bold. So for example, preposition phrases can often be premodified by the specialised adverbs straight or right, and true to form we can do this with the subject in example (6):

  • Right after Christmas would be best.

For grammars such as these, then, the Original Poster's bolded strings in (1-2) are not noun phrases, but finite, subordinate, open interrogative clauses. The string in example (3) is a non-finite, subordinate, open interrogative clause. Example (4), however, is indeed a noun phrase where the word that (which can be analysed either as a pronoun or a determinative depending on ones grammar) is being modified by a restrictive relative clause—also known as an integrated or defining relative clause.

  • Doesn’t that just rather beg the question of what the difference is between, say, a finite subordinate clause (acting as subject), and a fused-head NP containing a finite subordinate clause (and acting as subject)? Personally, I can’t see any difference at all, except that the second approach requires a more explicit ‘conversion’ (as it were) to a nominal type in order to function as subject. Jul 20, 2019 at 13:32
  • This is a very good answer, which cuts to the core of the problem, but then, alas, comes up with the wrong resolution. Here is the key: "For such grammars, which have far richer descriptive and predictive power, many different types of phrase and clause can occur as subject:" I don't know about "predictive power", but are we really after rich descriptive power? A person who thinks so has missed the point of the Chomskian enterprise. Humans have limitations arising from their biological evolution.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 20, 2019 at 13:53
  • @GregLee I bet ELU’s never-ending stream of questions about paradoxical part-of-speech assignments of particular words is because “regular” people are stuck thinking in old-school dependency grammars not modern constituency grammars: They have no room for phrases in their models! Any deep understanding of grammar requires recognizing how not mere words but entire syntactic constituents are fitted together. When your model says a noun must be the subject, then Carefully herding cats is tiring misleads them into wrongly thinking herding is a noun not the verb it clearly is.
    – tchrist
    Jul 20, 2019 at 16:26
  • By the way, Araucaria's analysis of his example 10 is highly original. Yes, highly.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 20, 2019 at 18:44
  • @GregLee Quite right. Richer is completely the wrong word there. Will edit. Jul 20, 2019 at 18:55

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