2 Complex noun phrases

Academic Writing for International Students of Science - Jane Bottomley 2015

2 Complex noun phrases

Whichever type of sentence you use, it will almost always have at least one subject, and possibly an object, and these almost always comprise noun phrases. A noun phrase can be just one word, or several, as shown in the examples below:

Research has been conducted in this area.

Research funded by the government has been conducted in this area.

Original research funded by the government has been conducted in this area.

Explorative Task (i)

Compare the structures below. How do they differ grammatically? Which is more effective? Why?

1) Brown carried out some important research. The research investigated the causes of breast cancer. It was funded by the British Medical Foundation.

2) Brown’s important research into the causes of breast cancer was funded by the British Medical Council.

The first one uses several subject + verb structures and is quite repetitive; the second one has only one, rather long, subject and one main verb; it is more concise. These complex noun phrases are economical as they allow information to be compressed.

Explorative Task (ii)

Look at the breakdown of the noun phrase in the second sentence in the table below.








into the causes of breast cancer

The sentences below contain a number of complex noun phrases, some of which have been highlighted. Add the highlighted noun phrases to the table above, and make a note of the structures that can be used in the different columns. Then compare with the table which follows.

1) Toxic chemical pollution of water resources mainly involves agricultural and industrial contaminants.

2) It is estimated that two-thirds of premature deaths in adults are traceable to behaviour that started during teenage years, especially (notably in lower-income countries) smoking, but also other risky activities (Hammond, 2011).

3) Tuberculosis is a serious lower respiratory tract infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, an organism that is becoming more resistant to antibiotic treatment.

4) Because blood and lymph travel to all parts of the body, they are good ways to spread infection.

5) In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin proposed a thermodynamic method to specify temperature, based on the measurement of the quantity of heat flowing between bodies at different temperatures.

Typical noun phrase constructions





articles (a; the)

demonstratives (this; that etc.)

numbers and quantifiers (seven; several; every; some; etc.)

possessives (my; his; Brown’s; etc.)

adjectives (e.g. important; agricultural and industrial; serious; good)

nouns (e.g. lower respiratory tract)

nouns used in a countable sense:

singular (e.g. infection)

plural (e.g. contaminants; ways)

nouns used in an uncountable sense (e.g. research; behaviour; heat)

prepositional phrases (e.g. into the causes of breast cancer)

relative clauses (e.g. that started during teenage years)

participle clauses (e.g. caused by Mycobacterium; flowing between bodies)

infinitive clauses (e.g. to spread infection)

Explorative Task (iii)

Long noun phrases occur frequently in academic scientific writing. Find two noun phrases of more than 10 words in the text.

Besides their random nature, the tendency of material properties to vary spatially across the structure owing to the manufacture process or history effects can significantly influence structural behaviour. Random field theory (Ghanem and Spanos 2003, Liu et al. 1986, Missoum 2008) has been used in previous investigations to model material field uncertainty emanating from variability in the material microstructure in different locations of a structural component (Chen et al. 2010, Yin et al. 2009).

(Salehghaffari et al., 2013: 1027)

Study Box: Forming accurate noun phrases

1) Note that a countable noun must have a determiner if it is singular. One of the most common errors in non-native student writing is the omission of the article, or the use of a noun in the singular form when it should be in the plural, e.g.

They proposed using completely different method.

They proposed using a completely different method.

They proposed using completely different methods.

Many nouns can be either countable or uncountable, depending on how they are used, e.g.

The drug was used to control pain.

The patient experienced a sharp pain in the abdomen.

Plural and uncountable nouns may or may not have a determiner, depending on whether or not they are specified in some way. Compare:

Plastic is a synthetic material.

The plastic used in this product is Bakelite.

This technique is widely used in industry.

This technique is widely used in the car industry.

Note that in the sentence below, which industry must be already understood because it has been previously specified in the text:

This technique is widely used in the industry.

Some terms always/usually occur with a definite article (the UK; the US; the UN; the sun; the immune system). Learn these and make a note of any others in your subject.

Remind yourself of these rules when you are using very common countable scientific words such as method, system, level, technique, experiment and process. Also, if you are using a technical term from your subject repeatedly (molecule; wire; super nova; dam; control system), check in the dictionary to see if it is countable, and make sure you apply the rule each time — you should soon get into the habit and do it without thinking!

2) Always make sure the verb agrees with the subject of the sentence, even when it is separated from it, e.g.

The increasing demand for more sophisticated mobile devices are noted.

The increasing demand for more sophisticated devices is noted.

3) Remember that however long your noun phrase, it is still just the subject or object of your main verb (it could be replaced with one word like it). Therefore, you should never place a comma between the subject noun phrase and the verb, e.g.

Brown’s important research into the causes of breast cancer, was funded by the British Medical Foundation.

Brown’s important research into the causes of breast cancer was funded by the British Medical Foundation.

4) Post-modifying structures can themselves be long and complex, containing clauses or phrases, including more noun phrases, e.g.

behaviour [that started [during [teenage [years]]]]

Complex noun phrases often occur in academic scientific writing for good reason: they allow information to be compressed economically. However, they need to be constructed carefully. Moreover, they are not always the right choice: sometimes it is wiser to use a simpler subject + verb structure because this can often be clearer.

Practice (i)

Correct mistakes in the following sentences.

1) The proposal outlines flexible manufacturing control system suitable for chemical industries.

2) Scientist should work together to solve environmental problems.

3) The drug suppresses immune system.

4) The effect of pollution on marine mammals are examined in detail.

5) Galileo’s greatest contribution to science, was his work in mechanics.

Practice (ii)

Combine these sentences together, using complex noun phrases.

1) Life expectancy in the developed world is increasing. This is partly due to improved nutrition and medical care.

The increase in ______________________________

2) Many believe that alternative energy sources will solve our environmental problems. Some experts dispute this.

The belief that ______________________________

3) The modern diet comprises a great deal of processed foods. This is bound to have serious repercussions in terms of public health.

The fact that ______________________________

4) We may need more energy efficient data transfer in mobile devices. The paper assesses this.

The paper ______________________________

5) The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuates depending on the season. This fluctuation occurs because, in the summer, the uptake of CO2 by plants increases.

The seasonal ______________________________

Think about how you could use this technique to produce a simple paraphrase of original sources. Chapter 7