Phrase vs. Clause: How to Tell Them Apart [With Examples]

Can you tell which of the two underlined group of words is a phrase and which is a clause?

After I left the workplace, I headed straight to the cinema hall.

After leaving the workplace, I headed straight to the cinema hall.

They look similar, but the first is a clause and the second is a phrase (some also call it non-finite clause). They’ve been explained later in the post.

Phrases and clauses are both group of words

We understand sentences as rule-based arrangement of words, with each word functioning as a part of speech. Example:

Before I could begin my presentation, the power went off.

Sentences can also be understood as rule-based arrangement of words and more important constituents called phrases and clauses, with each of them functioning as a part of speech. Examples (comments in square brackets):

Before I could begin my presentation, the power went off. [Comment: Verb phrase/Noun phrase/Noun phrase]

Before I could begin my presentation, the power went off. [Adverb clause/Independent clause]

(Note that single words have not been treated as phrases, though, when thinking in terms of phrases, it’s not uncommon to classify words as phrases.)

Phrases and clauses are both group of words playing a part of speech in sentences just like words, but they differ from each other.

A clause contains both subject and verb; a phrase doesn’t

Whereas a clause is a group of words containing both subject and verb, a phrase is a group of words without both subject and verb. Note that verb in a clause means finite (or tense) verb, and not participle or infinitive.

What’s so sanctimonious about subject and verb that it creates a wall between two groups of words? If you recall Grammar 101, a sentence requires at least a subject and a verb to exist. They together represent an idea – a person or thing (subject) doing (verb) something – putting anything that contains both on a higher pedestal. So, unlike a phrase, a clause represents an idea, which can be complete (independent clause) or incomplete (dependent clause). Let’s take an example.

The winter chill continued for weeks. [Phrase]

The winter chill continued as if it would never end. [Clause]

The length of the winter chill has been represented by a phrase (for weeks) and a clause (as if it would never end). Note that the phrase as well as the clause is a group of words, but only the clause contains both subject (it) and verb (would end).

A group of words automatically qualifies as a phrase if it fails to rise to the higher pedestal of clause through a subject-verb combination. Therefore, phrases are far more numerous in sentences than clauses. That’s akin to finding more people with bachelor’s degree than with master’s degree. As you’ll see in the next sub-section, phrases occur in more types than clauses, and in sentences they can play more functions (or parts of speech) than clauses.

Types of phrases and clauses

To standardize how we write phrases and clauses, few types of both have been prescribed along with their function (parts of speech) in a sentence. Yes, even phrases and clauses function as one or the other parts of speech.

There are five types of phrases (noun phrase, verb phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase, and prepositional phrase). The non-finite form of verb though has two additional phrases (participial phrase and infinitive phrase), with the participial phrase having an offshoot (absolute phrase). All in all, you can count eight phrases. Some books count gerund phrase and appositive phrase as separate phrases, but they’re essentially noun phrases.

Here is a list of phrases and their function (part of speech) in sentences.

Types of phrase in English grammar

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There are four types of clauses: independent clause and three dependent clauses (noun clause, relative clause, and adverb clause). Here is a list of dependent clauses and their function (part of speech) in sentences.

Dependent clauses and the part of speech they belong to

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We saw that every word, phrase, and clause functions as a part of speech in a sentence. Here is an overall picture of different parts of speech words, phrases, and clauses can function as. (In this overall picture, the first table has been summarized in column 3, and the second table in column 4.)

Part of speech of words, phrases, and clauses

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Phrases come in wider variety than clauses, and they can be more flexibly squeezed in almost any part of a sentence than clauses.

How to tell if a group of words is a phrase or a clause? [2-step process]

Here is a two-step process to tell if a group of words is a phrase or a clause.

Step 1: Look for a finite (or tense) verb

As verb is easier to spot, start with locating a finite verb in the group of words. A finite verb has grammatical tense, and it corresponds to a subject in a sentence. A non-finite or non-tense verb (participle and infinitive), on the other hand, doesn’t have grammatical tense, and it doesn’t correspond to any subject in a sentence. Example: going and to go are non-finite verbs, but is going, went, and has gone are finite verbs.

If you don’t find a finite verb, it’s game over for clause. It’s a phrase, then. But if you find a verb, then you need to locate a corresponding subject. In most cases, you’ll find a corresponding subject, implying the group of words is a clause. But if you can’t, then it remains a phrase.

In nutshell, if we find that a group of words contains both subject and verb, then it’s a clause. If not, then it’s a phrase.

Let’s take few examples, first of group of words in isolation and then of group of words as part of sentence. In all the examples, only standard group of words, implying phrase and clause types mentioned earlier, will be considered. Anything non-standard actually doesn’t qualify as phrase or clause.

1. good idea

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then.

Note that any standard group of words will automatically qualify as a phrase unless it graduates to the higher pedestal of a clause.

2. according to him

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then.

3. to succeed in this job

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then. Note that to succeed is a non-finite (infinitive) form of verb succeed.

4. glad to see you

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then. Note that to see is a non-finite (infinitive) form of verb see.

5. after leaving the workplace

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then. Note that leaving is non-finite (participle) form of the verb leave (was leaving would have been finite).

6. after I left the workplace

Does it contain a finite verb? Yes, left is finite form of the verb leave. Therefore, it could be a clause, awaiting confirmation in Step 2.

7. because I fell ill

This too has a finite verb, but we need to go through Step 2 before we can declare it a clause.

8. after directing the police to not arrest the petitioner

Does it contain a finite verb? No. It’s a phrase, then. Note that directing and to arrest are both non-finite forms of verb.

9. even though the court asked the police to submit status report giving details of investigation done so far in the case

Does it contain a finite verb? Yes, asked is finite form of the verb ask. Therefore, it could be a clause, awaiting confirmation in Step 2. Note that to submit, giving, and done are non-finite forms of verb.

10. would have spoken

Does it contain a finite verb? Yes, would have spoken is finite form of the verb speak. Therefore, it could be a clause, but we need to go through Step 2 before we can declare it a clause.

After the first step, we’re left with 6, 7, 9, and 10 for further investigation.

Step 2: Look for a corresponding subject

Does the finite verb correspond to a subject? In other words, is there a person or thing that is responsible for the action of the verb? Let’s look at 6, 7, 9, and 10 from Step 1.

The first three have subjects (in blue font) corresponding to their finite verbs (in magenta font), but the fourth doesn’t. Hence, only 6, 7, and 9 are clauses. The fourth is a phrase.

6. after I left the workplace

7. because I fell ill

9. even though the court asked the police to submit status report giving details of investigation done so far in the case

10. would have spoken

Note that would have spoken is an isolated phrase here. If it was part of a sentence, it would’ve come with a corresponding subject. Example: He would have spoken to you. What does it mean? It means that would have spoken is a phrase, but He would have spoken to you is a clause. In fact, in a sentence, every finite verb will be accompanied by a subject, implying a clause.

Once you’ve learnt to separate clauses from phrases, the next two steps are to:

More examples: Identify group of words as phrase or clause in sentences

So far, we looked at group of words in isolation. Let’s now look at them in sentences.

Identify the underlined group of words as phrase or clause. BTW, these are not the only phrases or clauses in the sentence.

1. The debate over which car to buy has dragged on for a week now.

The debate: Phrase

which car to buy: to buy is not a finite verb. Phrase

for a week now: Phrase

2. Many species have gone extinct because of destruction of habitats by humans.

Many species: Phrase

have gone: It contains a finite verb have gone, but there is no corresponding subject within the group. Hence, it’s a phrase.

Like in the tenth phrase earlier, here we’re looking at an isolated phrase. The group of words itself doesn’t have a subject, and that’s why it’s not a clause, but if we expand the group to the entire sentence, it’ll correspond to the subject Many species. Remember, a finite verb will always correspond to a subject in a sentence, the largest possible group of words.

because of destruction of habitats: Phrase

by humans: Phrase

3. The woman playing poker is a three-time champion in this tournament.

The woman playing poker: playing is not a finite verb. Phrase

a three-time champion: Phrase

in this tournament: Phrase

4. The transport department is planning to bring back trains that have been under repair to ease crowding.

The transport department: Phrase

to bring back trains: to bring is a non-finite verb. Phrase

that have been under repair: have been is a finite verb and that is the corresponding subject. Hence, it’s a clause.

If you’re used to seeing only noun and pronoun as subject and hence wondering how can that be subject, you’re not alone. Identifying subject in a dependent clause, like the one in this example, can be challenging. Sometimes, the subject can be a word like that and sometimes it can be a regular noun or pronoun (see next example).

More resources:

5. The hungry tiger, who last had a meal four days ago, attacked the bear, but then it retreated when the bear counter-attacked.

The hungry tiger: Phrase

who last had a meal four days ago: had is a finite verb and who is the corresponding subject. Hence, it’s a clause.

when the bear counter-attacked: counter-attacked is a finite verb and the bear is the corresponding subject. Hence, it’s a clause.

Phrases and clauses can be like nesting dolls

In practice, most phrases and clauses are part of some other phrase or clause, much like nesting dolls. Let’s take an example.

The man who apparently committed the crime disappeared at the turn of the street.

The phrase The man who apparently committed the crime contains the phrase The man and a clause who apparently committed the crime, which in turn contains the phrase the crime. The phrase at the turn of the street contains the phrase at the turn, which in turn contains the phrase the turn, and the phrase of the street, which in turn contains the phrase the street.

Let’s take an example of a clause.

These four charts show who is ahead in the race to best year-end performance.

The clause who is ahead in the race to best year-end performance contains the phrase in the race to best year-end performance, which in turn contains another phrase to best year-end performance, which in turn contains the phrase best year-end performance.

Don’t get bogged down by how a smaller unit is nested under a bigger unit. This is just to appreciate how phrases and clauses are embedded into each other. Once you get hang of things, you’ll start writing them without thinking what makes them.

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