Noun Postmodification: Prepositional Phrases

Understanding complex postmodification with prepositional phrases
 

A prepositional phrase consists of a prepositionSee the glossary definition and a complement. The complement is usually a noun phrase.

  1. Simple Prepositional Phrases

    A very simple prepositional phrase consists of a prepositionSee the glossary definition and a single noun.

    • DNAhead noun phrase from dinosaursprepositional phrase (preposition + noun)      (context)In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs.

    • repertoirehead noun phrase of movementsprepositional phrase (preposition + noun)      (context)Every living ape uses a repertoire of movements, not just one.

     
  2. Prepositional Phrases with Adjectives

    We have a noun in the prepositional phrase and, as we know, nouns can be modified in various ways, for example with an adjective:

    • riskhead noun phrase of later diseaseprepositional phrase (preposition + adjective + noun)     (context)This will certainly improve sleep, and may reduce risk of later disease.

    • studieshead noun phrase of the earliest weevilsprepositional phrase (preposition + adjective + noun)     (context)Most useful of all would be studies of the earliest weevils, from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods (163-100 million years ago).

     
  3. Prepositional Phrases with Participle Modifiers

    We have a noun in the prepositional phrase and, as we know, nouns can be modified in various ways, for example with an adjective:

    • narrow rangehead noun phrase with adjective modifier of viewing anglesprepositional phrase (preposition + participle + noun)     (context)These structures produce flashy colours that you can only see from a narrow range of viewing angles and that change depending on viewing angle (a phenomenon known as iridescence).

    • presencehead noun phrase of ordered nanostructured arraysprepositional phrase (preposition + participles + noun)     (context)We examined the scales using powerful electron microscopes, which confirmed the presence of ordered nanostructured arrays.

    • In this last example there are two participles modifying the noun in the prepositional phrase; "ordered" and "nanostructured".

     
  4. Prepositional Phrases with Noun Modifiers

    The noun in the prepositional phrase can also be modified by another noun:

    • helphead noun phrase from our technology friendsprepositional phrase (preposition + pronoun + noun + noun)      (context)And if we can now remember more with a little help from our technology friends, that is arguably a great step forward.

    • small brown fragmentshead noun phrase modified by 2 adjectives of wing casesprepositional phrase (preposition + noun + noun)      (context)The newly-discovered insects appear rather underwhelming, preserved as small brown fragments of wing cases.

     
  5. Prepositional Phrases with Binomial Phrases

    The noun in the prepositional phrase may consist of coordinated phrase:

    • ancestorhead noun phrase of humans and chimpsprepositional phrase (preposition + noun + coordinator "and" + noun)      (context)And they claim that this probably makes it similar to the last shared ancestor of humans and chimps.

    • rigourshead noun phrase of decay and burialprepositional phrase (preposition + noun + coordinator "and" + noun)      (context)Maria’s previous research confirmed the crystals should survive the rigours of decay and burial during fossilisation.

    The noun phrase "decay and burial" itself becomes the head noun phrase for the prepositional phrase "during fossilisation".

     
  6. Prepositional Phrases with ing-clauses

    • fearhead noun phrase of going outside independentlyprepositional phrase (preposition + ing-clause + adverb)     (context)Studies have found, for example, that tai chi improves balance and prevents falls, a key issue for older people as falls can result in hip fracture and a fear of going outside independently.

    • possible methodhead noun phrase with adjective modifier for helping to prevent dementiaprepositional phrase (preposition + ing-clause)     (context)Tai chi has also been touted as a possible method for helping to prevent dementia or for slowing down the progression of the disease.

    Note that there is a second prepositional phrase containing an ing-clause (mirroring the first).

     
  7. Embedded Prepositional Phrases - Example 1

    The following examples all come from the same sentence which contains 4 prepositional phrases.

    • significant excitementhead noun phrase with adjective modifier in the fieldprepositional phrase (preposition + article + noun)     (context)In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs.

    • significant excitement head noun phrase with adjective modifier about the possibilityprepositional phrase (preposition + noun)     (context)In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs.

    • possibilityhead noun phrase of recovering DNAprepositional phrase (preposition + ing-clause)     (context)In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs.

    • DNAhead noun phrase with adjective modifier and postmodifying prepositional phrase from dinosaursprepositional phrase (preposition + noun )     (context)In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs.

    • The whole sentence is: In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement [in the field] [about the possibility] [of recovering DNA] [from dinosaurs].

      "excitement" is postmodified by two prepositional phrases: [in the field] and [about the possibility].

      "possibility" is postmodified by one prepositional phrase: [of recovering DNA].

      "DNA" is postmodified by one prepositional phrase: [from dinosaurs].

    In the the examples above we have a series of embedded prepositional phrases two of which are contained (embedded) within another. Structures like these are not uncommon in academic texts. 

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  9. Embedded Prepositional Phrases - Example 2

    The following examples all come from the same sentence, which contains 3 prepositional phrases, three of which are noun postmodifiers.

    • sedimentshead noun phrase from the ancient lakeprepositional phrase (preposition + article + adjective + noun)     (context)The specimens are 13,000-year-old weevils found by our colleague Scott Elias (formerly of Royal Holloway University), in sediments from the ancient lake of Lobsigensee in Switzerland.

    • ancient lake head noun phrase with adjective modifier of Lobsigenseeprepositional phrase (preposition + noun)     (context)The specimens are 13,000-year-old weevils found by our colleague Scott Elias (formerly of Royal Holloway University), in sediments from the ancient lake of Lobsigensee in Switzerland.

    • lake of Lobsigenseehead noun phrase(noun + prepositional phrase) in Switzerlandprepositional phrase (preposition + proper noun)     (context)The specimens are 13,000-year-old weevils found by our colleague Scott Elias (formerly of Royal Holloway University), in sediments from the ancient lake of Lobsigensee in Switzerland.

    • The whole sentence is: The specimens are 13,000-year-old weevils found by our colleague Scott Elias (formerly of Royal Holloway University), in sediments [from the ancient lake] [of Lobsigensee] [in Switzerland].

      "sediments" is postmodified by the prepositional phrase: [from the ancient lake] .

      "the ancient lake" is postmodified by the prepositional phrase: [of Lobsigensee].

      "the ancient lake of Lobsigensee" is postmodified by the prepositional phrase: [in Switzerland].

    This is a straightforward cascade of post-modifying prepositional phrases. There are other prepositional phrases in this sentence but they do not modify nouns.

Test your understanding with the Prepositional Phrases Quiz.

 

These examples were sourced from articles in The Conversation: Nobel Prize; How We Learned to Walk; Dark Nights and Health; Insect Colours; Internet and Memory; Tai Chi.



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