Noun phrase generator

Try this noun phrase generator in class. Your students will enjoy creating weird and funny noun phrases using the interactive whiteboard.


  • Create some new noun phrases.
  • Examine what can and can't happen in noun phrases.
  • Evaluate example noun phrases, looking at why they do or don't work.

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will be generating noun phrases. 

On the first slide in the activity page, a noun phrase generator appears. There are four columns with different kinds of elements that can form part of a noun phrase. Click on a coloured column and drag up or down to explore what the generator can produce. Read across a line to see each noun phrase. Some combinations work better than others! Some don’t really work at all. Explore the generator and discuss why some combinations work and others don’t. Can you think of ways to fix the ones that don’t work.

The second slide presents a noun phrase generator that also allows you to switch the order of the words. You can do this by clicking in a column and dragging to left or right (or by clicking on the arrows at the tops of the columns). This means that you can try reordering the elements of the noun phrase in different ways. What do you notice? To test more carefully, you could start with some noun phrases that make sense in the original order (likethe noisy boy who is chasing the ducks), and then see what happens when you reorder.

Discussion Points

You will no doubt have noticed that some combinations are quite odd in terms of meaning:

  • some mouldy athletes on your plate

It’s rather hard to picture athletes being mouldy, or being on a plate for that matter! However, you can probably use your imagination and create a strange mental image of some kind – perhaps some very tiny athletes wearing mouldy old clothes and running around on a plate.

We can compare that example with some mouldy cheese on your plate. This is a much more likely combination, as cheese is the kind of thing that can get mouldy and that is likely to be found on a plate. The difference between the two examples is a matter of meaning and what we know is likely to occur.

What about examples like the following?

  • this little monkeys that I saw
  • these shiny coin that you dropped

Here the problems are more to do with a mismatch between determiner and noun (this monkeys, these coin). How could we fix these examples?

If we swap the determiners around, the examples are fine:

  • these little monkeys that I saw
  • this shiny coin that you dropped

Or we could instead swap the noun ending -s around:

  • this little monkey that I saw
  • these shiny coins that you dropped

The problems with this monkeys and these coin are to do with singular and plural forms of nouns:

  • The determiner this can’t go with a plural form (form that refers to more than one person or thing) like monkeys.
  • The determiner these can’t go with a singular form (usually referring to just one person or thing) like coin.

So these problems are more grammatical. They do involve an aspect of meaning (one person or thing versus more than one), but it’s a very general type of meaning that affects frequent grammatical patterns.

You can see that it’s very general by testing out many different nouns:

  • The determiner this can’t go with ANY plural form. All these sound wrong: this monkeys, this books, this children, this apples, ...
  • The determiner these can’t go with ANY singular form. Try some out yourself and see!

You might have noticed that we can have this furniture, even though we usually picture more than one thing if we think of furniture. Is this an exception to the pattern we found?

No, it’s not an exception to the grammatical pattern, because furniture is a singular form in grammatical terms. But furniture is a special kind of noun, called a non-count noun. It can’t be counted and it can’t take a plural form. We wouldn’t say one furniture, two furnitures, or three furnitures.

We can say some furniture. With ordinary count nouns, we would have to have a plural form after some, e.g. some monkeys (not *some monkey).

Can you find other examples of count nouns and non-count nouns in the slot machine examples? Try out the patterns.

You might notice that some nouns are quite flexible and can be either count or non-count nouns depending on the way they are used. An example is cake: compare I ate some cake (non-count) and I ate a cake (count).

What about the patterns of nouns and clauses that follow them?

  • the little spider that bites people
  • the little monkeys that bites people

The first example sounds right, but the second one sounds wrong. Why? How can we fix it?

This is again to do with singular and plural noun forms, but this time it involves how they fit together with the verb.

  • We could fix the example by changing the noun to the singular form: the little monkey that bites people.
  • Or we could change the form of the verb to fit: the little monkeys that bite people.

You may have found examples on Slide 2 like the following:

  • the boy noisy who is chasing the ducks
  • delicious this on your plate cake
  • athletes young who were eating icecream some
  • heavy in the attic the furniture

These sound quite jumbled. This shows that the ordering of these elements in the noun phrase is quite strict. It is hard to find any changed orders that work.

There is an occasional example where a reordering makes sense, almost by accident:

  • the new pyjamas that Maya bought (original order)
  • the pyjamas that Maya bought new (reordered)

In the second example, the adjective new has been moved to the end and it happens to fit in quite well. But notice that this structure is different (the adjective now belongs inside the clause that is modifying the noun) and there is a difference in meaning. Are these pyjamas new? We don’t know. Maya bought them when they were new, but they might be old by now.

What about this example? Can you make sense of it?

  • noisy that boy who is chasing the ducks

Adding some punctuation would help:

  • Noisy, that boy who is chasing the ducks!

This might be said in casual conversation as a shortened version of He’s noisy, that boy who is chasing the ducks! But the structure has changed now – noisy is not part of the noun phrase.

You might like to try finding some more examples of different structures that make sense. Here are a few more examples to give you ideas:

  • This cake on your plate – delicious!
  • Mouldy, that cheese in the attic.

Some examples might work as unusual structures within poems. Experiment and see!


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