Nominal group (functional grammar)

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"Those five beautiful shiny Jonathan apples sitting on the chair"

In systemic functional grammar (SFG), a nominal group is a group of words which expresses an entity, for example "The nice old English police inspector who was sitting at the table is Mr Morse". Grammatically here, "The nice old English police inspector who was sitting at the table" functions as a nominal group and acts like the subject of the sentence. A nominal group is widely regarded as synonymous to noun phrase in other grammatical models,[1][2] although the coiner of the term, Halliday, and some of his followers draw a theoretical distinction between the terms group and phrase. He argues that "A phrase is different from a group in that, whereas a group is an expansion of a word, a phrase is a contraction of a clause".[3] Halliday borrowed the term group from the linguist/classicist Sydney Allen.[4]

The rank scale in SFG[edit]

SFG postulates a rank scale, in which the highest unit is the clause and the lowest is the morpheme. The intermediate units are groups/phrases, and words. Each unit of scale is said to consist of one or more units of the rank below.[5] At group/phrase rank, Halliday proposes also the "verbal group", the "adverbial group", and the "prepositional phrase". The term 'nominal' in 'nominal group' was adopted because it denotes a wider class of phenomena than the term noun.[6] The nominal group is a structure which includes nouns, adjectives, numerals and determiners. The term noun has a narrower purview. Formal linguists recruit the term noun phrase for their grammatical descriptions. Given the significant differences in the theoretical architecture in functionalist and formalist theories, the terms must be seen to be doing quite different descriptive work. For instance, these group/phrase elements are re-interpreted as functional categories, in the first instance as process, participant and circumstance, with the nominal group as the pre-eminent structure for the expression of participant roles in discourse.[7]

Within Halliday's functionalist classification of this structure, he identifies the functions of Deictic, Numerative, Epithet, Classifer and Thing. The word classes which typically realise these functions are set out in the table below:

Deictic Deictic2 Numerative Epithet Classifier Thing
determiner adjective numeral adjective noun or adjective noun

Within a clause, a nominal group functions as though it is that noun, which is referred to as the head; the items preceding the head are called the premodifiers, and the items after it the qualifier.[8] In the following example of a nominal group, the head is bolded.

Those five beautiful shiny Jonathan apples sitting on the chair

English is a highly nominalised language, and thus lexical meaning is largely carried in nominal groups. This is partly because of the flexibility of these groups in encompassing premodifiers and qualification, and partly because of the availability of a special resource called the thematic equative, which has evolved as a means of packaging the message of a clause in the desired thematic form[9] (for example, the clause [What attracts her to the course] is [the depth of understanding it provides] is structured as [nominal group A] = [nominal group B]). Many things are most readily expressed in nominal constructions; this is particularly so in registers that have to do with the world of science and technology, where things, and the ideas behind them, are multiplying and proliferating all the time.[10]

Three metafunctions in the nominal group[edit]

Like the English clause, the nominal group is a combination of three distinct functional components, or metafunctions, which express three largely independent sets of semantic choice: the ideational (what the clause or nominal group is about); the interpersonal (what the clause is doing as a verbal exchange between speaker and listener, or writer and reader); and the textual (how the message is organised—how it relates to the surrounding text and the context in which it is occurring/ it occurs). In a clause, each metafunction is a virtually complete structure, and the three structures combine into one in interpretation. However, beneath the clause—in phrases and in groups, such as the nominal group—the three structures are incomplete of themselves and need to be interpreted separately, "as partial contributions to a single structural line".[11] In nominal groups, the ideational structure is by far the most significant in premodifying the head. To interpret premodification, it is necessary to split the ideational metafunction into two dimensions: the experiential and the logical.

Experiential dimension[edit]

The experiential dimension concerns how meaning is expressed in the group as the organisation of experience. The critical question is how and whether the head is modified. The head does not have to be modified to constitute a group in this technical sense.[12] Thus, four types of nominal group are possible: the head alone ("apples"), the head with premodifiers ("Those five beautiful shiny Jonathan apples"), the head with a qualifier ("apples sitting on the chair"), and the full structure of premodification and qualification, as above.

Functions of the premodifiers[edit]

In this example, the premodifiers characterise the head, on what is known as the uppermost rank (see "Rankshifting" below). In some formal grammars, all of the premodifying items in the example above, except for "Those", would be referred to as adjectives, despite the fact that each item has a quite different grammatical function in the group. An epithet indicates some quality of the head: "shiny" is an experiential epithet, since it describes an objective quality that we can all experience; by contrast, "beautiful" is an interpersonal epithet, since it is an expression of the speaker's subjective attitude towards the apples, and thus partly a matter of the relationship between speaker and listener. "Jonathan" is a classifier, which indicates a particular subclass of the head (not Arkansas Black or Granny Smith apples, but Jonathan apples); a classifier cannot usually be intensified ("very Jonathan apples" is ungrammatical). "Five" is a numerator, and unlike the other three items, describes not a quality of the head but its quantity.[13]

Ordering of the premodifiers: from speaker–now to increasingly permanent attributes[edit]

The experiential pattern in nominal groups opens with the identification of the head in terms of the immediate context of the speech event—the here-and-now—what Halliday calls "the speaker–now matrix". Take, for example, the first word of the nominal group exemplified above: "those": "those apples", as opposed to "these apples", means "you know the apples I mean—the ones over there, not close to me"; distance or proximity to the immediate speech event could also be in temporal terms (the ones we picked last week, not today), or in terms of the surrounding text (the apples mentioned in the previous paragraph in another context, not in the previous sentence in the same context as now) and the assumed background knowledge of the listener/speaker ("the apple" as opposed to "an apple" means "the one you know about"). The same function is true of other deictics, such as "my", "all", "each", "no", "some", and "either": they establish the relevance of the head—they "fix" it, as it were—in terms of the speech event.

There is a progression from this opening of the nominal group, with the greatest specifying potential, through items that have successively less identifying potential and are increasingly permanent as attributes of the head. As Halliday points out, "the more permanent the attribute of a thing, the less likely it is to identify it in a particular context"[14] (that is, of the speech event). The most permanent item, of course, is the head itself. This pattern from transient specification to permanent attribute explains why the items are ordered as they are in a nominal group. The deictic ("those") comes first; this is followed by the numerative, if there is one ("five"), since the number of apples, in this case, is the least permanent attribute; next comes the interpersonal epithet which, arising from the speaker's opinion, is closer to the speaker–now matrix than the more objectively testable experiential epithet ("shiny"); then comes the more permanent classifier ("Jonathon", a type of apple), leading to the head itself. This ordering of increasing permanence from left to right is why we are more likely to say "her new black car" than "her black new car": the newness will recede sooner than the blackness.

Logical dimension[edit]

The logic of the group in English is recursive, based on successive subsets:[15] working leftwards from the head, the first question that can be asked is "what kind of apples?" (Jonathon apples.) Then, "what kind of Jonathon apples?" (Shiny Jonathon apples.) "What kind of shiny Jonathon apples?" (Beautiful shiny Jonathon apples) "What kind of beautiful shiny Jonathon apples?" (Here the recursive logic changes, since this is a multivariate, not a univariate, nominal group—the question now is "How many beautiful shiny Jonathon apples?" and after that, "How do those five beautiful shiny Jonathon apples relate to me the speaker/writer, now?" ("Those ones".) In contrast, the logical questions of a univariate group would be unchanged right through, typical of long strings of nouns in news headlines and signage[16] ("International departure lounge ladies' first-class washroom").


The post-modifiers here contain information that is rankshifted. Returning to the original example above, "on the chair" is a prepositional phrase embedded within the nominal group; this prepositional phrase itself contains a nominal group ("the chair"), comprising the head ("chair"), and a deictic ("the") which indicates whether some specific subset of the head is intended (here, a specific chair we can identify from the context).[17] By contrast, "Those" is a deictic on the uppermost rank and is applied to the head on the uppermost rank, "apples"; here, "those" means "You know which apples I mean—the ones over there".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Crystal, 2008. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th edition, p 328: nominal group = ‘noun phrase’.
  2. ^ Butler, Downing, & Lavid, 2007. Functional perspectives on grammar and discourse: in honour of Angela Downing, p xxi: the nominal group Halliday's term for the noun phrase); p 165: the English nominal group (aka noun phrase)
  3. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004 An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Arnold: p311.
  4. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. 2005. Studies in the English Language. Volume 7 in the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday. Edited by J.J.Webster. London and New York: Continuum. p xvi.
  5. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar.Arnold: p9
  6. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Arnold; p. 320.
  7. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 1999. Construing experience through meaning: a language-based approach to cognition. London and New York: Continuum.
  8. ^ Halliday MAK and Mattheison C (2004) Introduction to functional grammar, 3rd ed., London, Hodder Arnold, 311–12
  9. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Spoken and written language, Deakin University Press, 72
  10. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Spoken and written language, Deakin University Press, 73
  11. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Introduction to functional grammar, 2nd ed., London, Hodder Arnold, 179–80
  12. ^ Bloor T, Bloor M (2004) The functional analysis of English, 2nd ed., London, Edward Arnold, 31
  13. ^ Halliday MAK and Mattheison C (2004) Introduction to functional grammar, 3rd Ed, London, Hodder Arnold, 317–20
  14. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Introduction to functional grammar, 2nd ed., London, Hodder Arnold, 187
  15. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Introduction to functional grammar, 2nd ed., London, Hodder Arnold, 191
  16. ^ Halliday MAK (1985/94) Introduction to functional grammar, 2nd ed., London, Hodder Arnold, 193
  17. ^ Halliday MAK (2004) Introduction to functional grammar, 3rd ed, London, Hodder Arnold, 312