I've just started learning syntax, from Jim Miller's Edinburgh introduction. Please answer for Miller's analysis, if possible. Currently, I am concerned I'm being too zealous in recognizing new phrases and heads. E.g. in

My plants are good for me.

the determiner, 'my', can I think be omitted, which I believe is one of his tests for being a phrase.

But then the noun also seems to pass a test for being a phrase, conjunction:

My plants and pets are good for me.

I also wondered if the answer means that the determiner and its noun can be separated in a clause.

Plants I don't nurture my.

Which reads like poor English: but why? Specifically, if both 'plants' and 'my' are phrases, then why aren't they syntactically independent enough to separate?

  • 2
    "My" is a noun phrase. "My plants" is a noun phrase with "plants" as head and the pronoun "my" as genitive dependent, so we have one NP functioning within another. "My [plants] and [pets]" is a coordination of two nominals (nouns) determined by "my".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 6:40

2 Answers 2


Miller is writing an introductory text: the tests for "constituents" are various

The tests are merely rough-and-ready tools that grammarians employ to reveal clues about syntactic structure. Some syntacticians even arrange the tests on a scale of reliability, with less-reliable tests treated as useful to confirm constituency though not sufficient on their own. Failing to pass a single test does not mean that the test string is not a constituent, and conversely, passing a single test does not necessarily mean the test string is a constituent

So no, the determiner and its noun are not two separate phrases / heads.

Elsewhere, he notes that phrases are usually made from words that are next to one another. I assume that's why the last example makes no sense (I cannot find anything more specific than that)

Heads and modifiers tend to occur next to each other.

  • 2
    "My" is a separate phrase and "plants" is the head of the matrix NP "my plants". "Plants" is not itself an NP, but a nominal, i.e. an NP less the determiner.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 8:33
  • 1
    "My" is listed as a determiner in my dictionary. I would suggest answering the question in order to explain @BillJ perhaps Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 10:34
  • Determiner is its function, but its category (part of speech) is pronoun. It's crucial to distinguish category and function when parsing a clause.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 15:38
  • I don't see how a clear statement claiming to follow from preceding argument ('So no, the determiner and its noun are not two separate phrases / heads.') makes sense following, essentially, 'the rules may or may not work in individual cases'. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 14:22

The quintessential English sentence has the familiar syntax Subject-predicate: thus, John hit the ball is a meaningful sentence because it corresponds to this familiar structure.

The parts of speech (POS) are broadly classified into eight categories, and each speech part has been ascribed its characteristic function: thus, while nouns name things, adjectives qualify nouns, and adverbs in turn qualify adjectives (along with verbs and adverbs themselves.)

It's under this classification scheme that we make sentences in English. Parts of speech, although they are mere labels which don't mean much per se, allow us to turn otherwise meaningless word bunches into proper sentences. Imagine them as slots into which must go the right words if we are to make such proper sentences.

It is for this reason that My plants are good for me is a meaningfully sentence. You are adhering to the established syntax and putting the right words into the right slots. The determiner my is precisely in the slot where it should be (it should be modifying the noun coming next to it and that's what it's doing), the familiar S-V structure is obeyed (although that's not compulsory every time), and so forth.

Likewise, My plants and pets are good for me reads like a fine English sentence because again the right words are in the right slots. The conjunction and is doing what it should be doing (it's piecing together word bunches), again the S-V structure is adhered to, and so forth.

Coming to the sentence Plants I don't nurture my, the reader stops dead in his tracks reading this. Why? Because the trained eye doesn't recognize the familiar syntax it's used to: something is amiss with this structure. On closer inspection one notices that the determiner my isn't doing what it should be doing. It has been shoehorned into the wrong slot. After all, it was meant to modify the noun plants. Of course, poets sometimes take poetic license and take liberties with syntax, but that is a different story.

So, the bottom line is that syntax is a useful tool that helps us to make sense of amorphous word bunches and communicate effectively with others.

  • 2
    But "my" is a genitive pronoun, though it does function as a determiner.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 6:37
  • @BillJ Determiners function adjectivally: they tell you more about their noun. "My plants" can be distinguished from "The plants", "Big plants", and "Your plants", all of which are noun phrases) I fail to see the reasoning in which "my" could a a noun phrase if "my" cannot be replaced by a pronoun. The genitive pronoun is "mine."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 10:26

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