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What Is a Nominal Group?

By Steven Symes
Updated May 23, 2024
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A nominal group is a grammatical unit or group that can be used as a noun in the English language. A noun is typically surrounded by other words that describe or reflect the character of the noun, which make up a noun phrase. An example of a noun phrase would be “the cute bunny on the table” where “bunny” is the noun.

A nominal group is made up of three different functional elements. The first element is the interpersonal, or how the use of the clause affects the interaction between two speakers, or a reader and a writer. Second is the ideational, which is the meaning of the clause. The third element is the textual, or the structure of the words inside the clause as well as the clause’s placement in the surrounding text. These functional elements work together to create the overall meaning of the clause.

When used as a noun, a nominal group might be used in a sentence clause. The nominal group or unit must be attached to a determiner, such as “the” or “every” for it to function in either a clause or the main part of a sentence. The noun in the group is called the head. Any descriptive words in the group that precede the noun are called premodifiers. The descriptive words that come after the noun in the group are called postmodifiers. Because of their use as noun phrases, some people might use the term nominal group as a synonym for noun phrases.

The order of the words in a nominal group communicates meaning, other than the meaning of the individual words. Premodifiers in a group are describe the group’s head in the uppermost rank position of the group. The postmodifiers in a nominal group are then placed in a lower rank. This ranking of words describing the head in a group is called rank-shifting. English speakers also naturally position words that describe more permanent attributes of the head closer in position to the head, with less-permanent descriptive words taking up residence near the beginning or end of the group.

The English language constantly makes use of nominal groups. Such clauses are easily used in a variety of situations, and at the beginning, middle and end of sentences. In fact, some sentences are composed of two or more nominal groups strung together. For example, the sentence “what he looks for in a car, is the feeling of the seats” is made up of two nominal groups that are joined together with the word “is.”

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