As you well know, noun phrases are built around nouns. Straightforward enough — trouble is, more often than not, noun phrases consist of much more than the obligatory bits like a noun and possibly a determiner (like the). So you might have a single noun (recipes), but you can also build in a number of different pre- and post-modifying expressions (some popular basic recipes for bread which use oil for a spongier texture). Noun phrases can be linked to other noun phrases and their modifiers can themselves be modified. A bread recipe might recommend that Soft elasticity and a smooth texture can be achieved by enthusiastic kneading and flavoured oils. Or it might tell us:
The induction of a soft elasticity into the bread dough and the promotion of a smooth and even texture in the end product can be achieved by the operation of enthusiastic kneading and in the initial stages of the procedure the addition of subtle flavoured oils together with sugar for assistance in the conversion of the flour’s natural sugars into carbon monoxide.
This syntactic nightmare illustrates the horrifying potential of this particular aspect of noun phrase modification.
Of course we don’t speak like this, but such examples make regular appearances in many of the superliterate varieties of English (the so-called -eses such as Legalese and its off-spring Bureaucratese). Indeed many Plain English translations of these written varieties attempt to convert this kind of complex “nouny” style into a more user-friendly “verby” style.
So it can be tricky to decide where the noun phrase begins and ends without applying some tests. But luckily there is an easy way of deciding exactly how much of a string belongs to the noun phrase. Pronouns replace noun phrases, not nouns. (They should more accurately be called pro-noun-phrases!) Hence, to decide exactly what in a text is a noun phrase, you replace a suspect string of words with a pronoun — for instance she, what, it, they, us or that. All the material we need to remove to keep the sentence grammatical must then belong to the noun phrase (though it may not make as much sense as it did with the full noun phrases).
Consider the following example that came up for discussion recently:
Plans to mobilise Chinese support for the torch in Australia follow an outpouring of anger among Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese around the world over images of pro-Tibet protesters in London and Paris “attacking” the torch, which they see as a symbol of China’s re-emergence in the world.
I find the easiest way to go about something like this is to first locate the main verb (which I’ve bolded) and then ask a ‘what’ question of the verb — what follow? The answer is the full (subject) noun phrase plans to mobilize Chinese support for the torch in Australia.
In this example, you can also ask another ‘what’ question — follow what? The answer here is the full (object) noun phrase an outpouring of anger among Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese around the world over images of pro-Tibet protesters in London and Paris "attacking" the torch, which they see as a symbol of China's re-emergence in the world. This whole string is a noun phrase that could be replaced by it or this.
But these are “heavy” noun phrases that have modifiers that themselves can contain noun phrases, so that we get noun phrases inside noun phrases. The image that comes to mind is one of Chinese boxes (or Russian dolls, if you prefer). But we can replace all of these noun phrases by pronouns. (This will make the text sound rather silly since it removes so much of the meaning, but it is structurally correct.)
The crucial thing when spotting noun phrases is that they are usually longer than you think; so try to replace a bit more of the string with a pronoun and if it turns out to be grammatical, then you have indeed found the whole noun phrase.
Post your own thorny grammar questions in the comments box and I’ll be happy to suggest a possible answer!