The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 329) has a section titled 'Nominals':

Intermediate between the noun and the NP we recognise a category of nominals:

[3] a. the old man

b. that book you were talking about

CGEL defines phrases like old man and book you were talking about as nominals. That is, nominals are defined as an NP minus any determiner.

Is there a corresponding term in traditional grammar or school grammar?

  • 5
    Beware of thinking that modern analyses (and not just the CGEL approach) can be regarded as traditional analyses with different terminology. Since the determiner / determinative had not been seen as a necessary POS in traditional grammars, how would they describe what is left after removing 'any' from the string 'any money in the bank'? Jan 24, 2020 at 12:24
  • 'the old man' is an NP, but is "that book you were talking about" an NP? It is a noun clause, if I am not wrong.
    – Ram Pillai
    Feb 3, 2020 at 5:10
  • 2
    McCawley distinguishes the old man (an NP) from old man (an N′, pronounced "N-bar"). As McCawley puts it, the N′ is part of the X-bar system, but the NP is not -- it's the grammatical equivalent of a logical argument, just as S is a grammatical equivalent of a logical proposition. Feb 4, 2020 at 4:36

2 Answers 2


It can be hard to generalize about traditional/school grammar — different books and different teachers have different idiosyncratic views and terminology — but I don't think that most traditional grammars would recognize either of those nominals as a constituent worth mentioning. (That may sound strange coming from a modern linguistic perspective — how can you just, not mention a constituent? — but traditional grammars just aren't that precise about most things.)

I'll cover a few examples below, to give you a flavor.

If you're asking this question because you want to be able to refer to this constituent in a traditional grammar context, then I would suggest using "noun phrase" both where CGEL uses "noun phrase" and where CGEL uses "nominal". Traditional grammar generally uses "X phrase" to mean "a multiword phrase that functions roughly like a single X", so if "the old man" is a noun phrase and "old man" is a constituent, then "old man" is a fortiori a noun phrase as well.

Now, for the promised examples . . .

Robert Lowth's 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar, page 106, treats examples like "the old man" as follows:

8th Phrase: When the quality of the Substantive is expressed by adding an Adjective to it: as, "a wise man;" "a black horse." Participles have the nature of Adjectives; as, "a learned man;" "a loving father."

Note the idiosyncratic term "8th Phrase" (so called because he puts it eighth in a list of different types of "Phrases" — a very haphazard list by modern standards), and the absolute non-mention of articles. I'm actually not 100% sure if the substantives here are supposed to be "man", "horse", and "father", or "a man", "a horse", and "a father"; if Lowth were around to ask, I'm guessing that he'd be surprised at the question, since the articles aren't the important part of the examples.

A century later, Alexander Bain's 1863 English Grammar, page 163, gives the example of "The neglect to lay down in distinct terms the opposition between true and false, has been […]"; it says that the subject is "neglect", and that it has two "attributive adjuncts", namely "the" and "to lay down in distinct terms the opposition between true and false". It gives no indication of whether Bain regards "neglect to lay down […]" as a constituent and "the neglect" as a non-constituent, and if he were around to ask, I'm not sure he'd have an easy time of it.

A century and a half later, Grammarly's online article "Everything You Need to Know About Sentence Diagramming, With Examples" says that articles are "also a kind of modifier", and says to "Place modifiers and articles on diagonal lines beneath the words they describe." You can see in example #3 that in the phrase "his old ball", "his" and "old" are rendered the same way: they play the same role, namely, they both modify "ball". I will make no guesses about the individual author's awareness of modern linguistics, because he didn't invent this diagramming scheme (it matches what I recall from English textbooks in the 1990s) and I don't assume that he endorses it; but suffice it to say that nothing in the diagramming scheme, or in the text of the article, suggests the notion that "old ball" might be a constituent within "his old ball".

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. Appreciate it.
    – JK2
    2 days ago
  • @JK2: You're welcome!
    – ruakh
    2 days ago

Nominals are also called substantives:

In English grammar, the term nominal is a category that describes the usage of parts of speech in a sentence. Specifically, the nominal definition is a noun, noun phrase, or any word or word group that functions as a noun. It is also known as a substantive.

The term comes from the Latin, meaning "name." Nominals can be the subject of a sentence, the object of a sentence, or the predicate nominative, which follows a linking verb and explains what the subject is. Nominals are used to give more specifics than a simple noun.

  • That's not the sense in which CGEL is using it though - so maybe it suggests that there is no corresponding term in traditional / school grammar.
    – JD2000
    Jan 24, 2020 at 7:26
  • 1
    In your 'Nominals' link, there's a paragraph citing Geoffrey Leech, who says nice cup of tea in a nice cup of tea is a nominal, which is in line with CGEL's definition of nominals.
    – JK2
    Jan 25, 2020 at 4:54
  • 1
    In my experience, "substantive" is used to mean "noun" (e.g. "book" or "man" could be called "substantives"), not to mean "nominal."
    – herisson
    Feb 3, 2020 at 21:44

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