Compare these two sentences (comments in square brackets).
Tom disappeared at the turn of the street. [Noun]
The man with bloodstains on his t-shirt disappeared at the turn of the street. [Noun phrase]
In the first sentence, a noun Tom is functioning as the subject of the sentence. In the second, a noun phrase The man with bloodstains on his t-shirt is functioning as the subject. The phrase packs in far more information than the one-word noun, doesn’t it? Another example:
The water is warm. [Adjective]
The water is sufficiently warm to gargle. [Adjective phrase]
Like the one-word adjective warm, an adjective phrase sufficiently warm to gargle describes the noun water, and with lot more detail. You need to think beyond one-word part of speech to write better. Pick any publication, and you’ll find long string of words functioning as noun, adjective, verb, and adverb.
Currently available vaccines produce powerful, long-lasting immunity against severe illness, as several studies have recently shown. The New York Times
The party’s popularity has fallen over its handling of Brexit, leaving Sinn Féin in pole position to be the largest party for the first time according to recent opinion polls. The Guardian
So, what’s a phrase? It’s a group of words, but not any.
What’s a phrase?
A phrase is a grammatical group of words that does not have both subject and verb. If the group of words has both subject and verb, it becomes a clause. Note that verb here means finite (or tense) verb, and not participle or infinitive.
Since subject and verb together essentially represent an idea – a person or thing (subject) doing (verb) something – a phrase, unlike clause, is not an idea. Examples:
the lion with scars on his face
long enough to reach the ground floor [to reach is non-finite for of verb]
have been sleeping
facing flak on social media [facing is non-finite form of verb]
to make positive change [to make is non-finite form of verb]
The above groups of words don’t contain both subject and verb. Hence, they’re phrases. Phrases don’t need to be short though. As long as they don’t have both subject and verb, they can take any length.
in view of the growing number of students seeking admission this year [growing and seeking are non-finite form of verb]
People face difficulty in differentiating between phrase and clause. Learn, through several examples:
Why learn phrase: It brings structure to writing
As we saw at the beginning of the post, a phrase can pack in complex information than its word counterpart. Besides, it brings structure to writing.
Here is an analogy, which has also been used to explain clauses, that will help you understand why we need phrases.
A house can be constructed brick by brick. But what if larger prefabricated units, say portions of wall, are available to be assembled? That will save time as well as reduce the chance of error.
A sentence can be constructed word by word. But what if larger prefabricated units, say phrases and clauses, are available to be assembled? You get the point.
Like building blocks of a house can be viewed as both bricks and prefab units (which are essentially made of bricks), building blocks of sentences can be viewed as both words and phrases & clauses (which are essentially made of words). For example, this sentence can be viewed as combination of words.
In the harsh sun, while the antelopes were relaxing under the shade of the tree, the subadult lioness slowly crept close to them.
The same sentence can be viewed as combination of words, phrases, and clauses. (Phrases and clauses have been underlined, and they’ve been named in the same sequence in the comment. 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.)
In the harsh sun, while the antelopes were relaxing under the shade of the tree, the subadult lioness slowly crept close to them. [Prepositional phrase/Noun phrase/Verb phrase/Prepositional phrase/Noun phrase/Prepositional phrase]
In the harsh sun, while the antelopes were relaxing under the shade of the tree, the subadult lioness slowly crept close to them. [Prepositional phrase/Adverb clause/Independent clause]
If we can write in such prefab units or chunks, writing can be simpler and less prone to errors. With such chunks, we won’t have to create afresh every time we write. It’s similar to chunks we learn in speaking – come on, good morning, let’s do it, you wanna try it, you got to be kidding, and so on – that automate several parts of our speech.
Based on what we covered in this subsection, here is an alternative definition of phrase:
A phrase is a prefabricated Lego-like unit not containing both subject and verb. It conveys complex information concisely while functioning as one of the four parts of speech – noun, adjective, verb, and adverb. (More on parts of speech later in the post.)
An example of how you can add phrases like prefab units
You can add phrases to a sentence like you can add prefab units to a building. We start with a base sentence and make it more informative by successively adding phrases.
The tiger waited patiently.
The tiger waited patiently for the antelope. [+ Phrase]
The tiger waited patiently for the antelope to wander close. [+ Phrase + Phrase]
The tiger, hiding behind the bushes, waited patiently for the antelope to wander close. [+ Phrase + Phrase + Phrase]
We can add clauses as well.
The tiger, hiding behind the bushes that provided perfect camouflage, waited patiently for the antelope to wander close. [+ Phrase + Phrase + Phrase + Clause]
The tiger, hiding behind the bushes that provided perfect camouflage, waited patiently for the antelope to wander close before it pounced on it. [+ Phrase + Phrase + Phrase + Clause + Clause]
Doesn’t the above construction support what Joe Moran said in First you write a sentence:
Only when you learn to separate clauses and phrases properly with commas can you write long sentences of lucidity and grace.
Write Sentences Like in Newspapers and Books
Step-by-step process. Little grammar. Real-world examples.
Phrases have been standardized into eight (or ten) types
If you’re wondering how to construct a phrase out of words, your task has been simplified by the grammarians. To standardize how we write phrases, five types of phrases have been prescribed.
- Noun phrase
- Verb phrase
- Adjective phrase
- Adverb phrase
- Prepositional phrase
They’re so called because the most important word (also called head word) in these phrases is a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and a preposition, respectively.
Each of these phrases has a particular function (or part of speech) in sentences, just like words have. That’s true. Every unit – word, phrase, or clause – that is part of a sentence must function as a part of speech. Phrases though can function as only four parts of speech – noun, adjective, verb, and adverb.
A noun phrase functions as a noun in a sentence. An adjective phrase functions as an adjective in a sentence. (If you remember, we used a noun phrase and an adjective phrase in place of a noun and adjective, respectively, at the beginning of the post.) An adverb phrase functions as an adverb in a sentence. A verb phrase functions as a verb in a sentence. Finally, a prepositional phrase functions as an adverb or an adjective in a sentence.
Verbs come with a twist though. They’ve finite and non-finite forms, each of which has its own phrase(s). Some grammar books include both types within verb phrase, and some deal with non-finite form separately. In this post, we’ll separate the non-finite verb phrases – infinitive phrase and participial phrase – as they work differently from the finite verb phrase (or the regular verb phrase). For the sake of completion, we’ll add an eighth phrase, absolute phrase, which is largely a variant of participial phrase.
Here is a pictorial representation of phrases and their function (part of speech). Like some words, some phrases can play multiple functions in sentences.
Note: To use the above image, cite the link (url) of this post.
It’s common to categorize words, phrases, and clauses on the basis of their function (noun, adjective, etc.) in a sentence. If you look at the above image, you’ll realize that adjective and adverb is the most common function of phrases. Phrases that function as adjective (see the fourth column) are called adjectival phrases, and phrases that function as adverb (see the fifth column) are called adverbial phrases. (If you’re wondering how a phrase functions as a particular part of speech, say noun phrase functioning as an adverb, refer to the two links for examples.)
We saw that every word, phrase, and clause must function 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.)
To use the above image, cite the link in the button (click to copy):
Let’s take a brief look at the eight phrases. If we write phrases like these, we’ll create prefab units that can be used as four different parts of speech. As mentioned earlier, the first five phrases contain head words (shown in bold).
1. Noun phrase
Also called nominal phrase, a noun phrase is a phrase that has a noun as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as a noun in a sentence, implying that the noun phrase can be the subject, object, subject complement, etc. in a sentence.
Violent movies with little story are of no interest to me. [Noun phrase as subject]
I’ll take thin-crust pizza with veggies. [Noun phrase as object of verb]
He hit the ball so hard that it landed on the terrace of the adjacent high-rise building. [Noun phrase as object of preposition]
Appositive phrases are nothing but noun phrases.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of light bulb, failed several times in his experiments before finally succeeding. [Noun phrase as appositive]
Siberian tiger, the largest cat in the world, can survive in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius. [Noun phrase as appositive]
So are gerund phrases because gerunds are nouns.
Swimming in deep waters is not my forte. [Noun phrase as subject]
Learn more about noun phrases:
2. Verb phrase
A verb phrase is a phrase that has a lexical verb as its head word (or the most important word), which is preceded by one or more auxiliary verbs. The verb phrase functions as a verb in a sentence.
He may have been talking on your back.
We can meet on Monday afternoon.
You will not exactly master the topic in three days. [Verb phrases can be split by adverbs.]
3. Adjective phrase
An adjective phrase is a phrase that has an adjective as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as an adjective in a sentence.
The tiger’s attempt was too feeble.
The water is sufficiently warm to gargle.
The coffee was so hot that it burnt my tongue.
Learn more about adjective phrases:
4. Adverb phrase
An adverb phrase is a phrase that has an adverb as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as an adverb in a sentence.
The snake crept up the stick more easily than I had thought.
The jet travels too fast to be targeted by missiles.
We looked for him everywhere, but he was nowhere to be found.
Learn more about adverb phrases:
5. Prepositional phrase
A prepositional phrase comes in ‘preposition + noun’ combination, with preposition as the head word (or the most important word). It can function as an adjective or an adverb, with the latter being more common function. They’re the most common adverbial phrases, especially to answer questions on place and time, often appearing at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.
I spotted a snake in the corner. [Adverb]
On Monday, I’ve a crucial meeting. [Adverb]
The tiger’s attempt at dethroning his rival off his territory was met with stiff resistance. [Adjective]
As mentioned earlier, the next three phrases are derivatives of non-finite form of verb.
6. Infinitive phrase
An infinitive phrase is a phrase that starts with ‘to + verb’. It can function as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.
To move the snake away, I guided it to creep on a long stick. [Adverb]
The tiger’s attempt to grab his rival’s territory was met with stiff resistance. [Adjective]
To drive an hour to work every day can be quite taxing. [Noun]
7. Participial phrase
A participial phrase is a phrase that starts with the present participle or past participle form of verb. Like a prepositional phrase, it too can function as an adjective or an adverb, with the former being more common function. Participial phrases functioning as an adverb will often, but not always, start with a subordinating conjunction such as while, after, before, and when.
While clearing the trash, I spotted a snake. [Adverb]
Surprised by his rival’s strength, the tiger retreated. [Adjective]
Hiding behind the bush, the tiger waited for the antelope to come close. [Adjective]
8. Absolute phrase
Absolute phrases are mainly formed by adding a participial phrase to a noun or pronoun. Example:
Sweat dripping from his forehead, he pedaled the bicycle vigorously. [Noun sweat is followed by the participial phrase dripping from his forehead]
A victory looking certain, the player slackened the intensity.
His teeth clenched, he lifted his personal best of 250 pounds.
This is the most common structure of absolute phrases, but this isn’t the only one. These phrases though aren’t common in regular non-fiction writing. You’ll find them mostly in fiction and literary non-fiction.
Phrase you write must be a standard phrase
Phrases we study in English have standard structures like mentioned above, and only in these forms they function as different parts of speech. We can’t disturb their structure even if the improvised group of words look meaningful.
In this sentence, some of the standard phrases have been underlined, which are functioning as noun, noun, and adverb, respectively. (If you don’t understand why they’re functioning as particular part of speech, you don’t need to bother to understand the message here.)
The debate over which car to buy has dragged on for a week now.
But these aren’t phrases, even though they might carry some meaning.
The debate over which car to buy has dragged on for a week now.
They don’t belong to any of the standard phrases and hence can’t function as a part of speech in a sentence. For example, you can’t use The debate over as noun, or any other part of speech, in this sentence.
The debate over was boring.
So, The debate over and dragged on for aren’t phrases, even though people may call them so in common parlance.
Phrases often contain clauses and other phrases
Where some phrases such as in London don’t contain any clause or other phrase, some do. Example:
The man who apparently committed the crime disappeared at the turn of the street.
The noun phrase The man who apparently committed the crime contains the noun phrase The man and a relative clause who apparently committed the crime, which in turn contains the noun phrase the crime.
The prepositional phrase at the turn of the street contains the noun phrase the turn of the street, which in turn contains the prepositional phrase of the street, which in turn contains the noun phrase the street.
That’ like nesting dolls, isn’t it?
The above wheels-within-wheels is not to scare you but to show you how phrases and clauses work together. Once you get hang of them, you’ll start writing them without thinking what they contain.
How understanding of phrases helps your writing?
First and foremost, they help squeeze in complex information succinctly in a sentence while making writing somewhat Lego-like. Since we’ve covered this throughout the post, we’ll skip it here.
Appreciation of phrase as a unit like its one-word functional counterpart helps us avoid few errors.
1. Unnecessary comma
Unless required for some other reason, a comma is not required within a phrase. However, sometimes people place a comma within a phrase, especially when it’s long, just to take a pause. Example:
The matter of investing millions of dollars in space program while many live below poverty line, arises every time the country launches a satellite.
It’s a long noun phrase, working as a single unit, but it doesn’t require a comma after line. How does this look?
The matter, arises every time the country launches a satellite.
If this looks incorrect to you, so should the sentence with a longer phrase. The two sentences are fundamentally the same.
2. Faulty subject-verb agreement
The faulty subject-verb agreement in this sentence is a result of assuming colors to be the subject of the sentence.
The insect with multiple colors
are the star attraction at the insectarium.
The subject, however, is the noun phrase The insect with multiple colors, and its agreement with the verb should be determined by the head word insect. So, the sentence with correct subject-verb agreement would be.
The insect with multiple colors is the star attraction at the insectarium.
3. Wrong placement of relative clause
Although uncommon, I’ve seen this happening. Because of not appreciating phrase as a unit, some put the relative clause immediately after the head noun and not the noun phrase. Examples:
The historian has provided an interpretation, which is now generally accepted, of the inscriptions.
So far, there has been no severe allergic reaction, which has been a concern for many, to mRNA vaccines.
The first relative clause describes the phrase interpretation of the inscriptions and not interpretation. The second describes the phrase severe allergic reaction to mRNA vaccines and not severe allergic reaction.
Therefore, the two relative clauses should be placed next to their respective phrases.
The historian has provided an interpretation of the inscriptions, which is now generally accepted.
So far, there has been no severe allergic reaction to mRNA vaccines, which has been a concern for many.