1. What is a Phrase?
A phrase is a group of two or more words that work together but don’t form a clause. In truth, “phrase” is a very broad term that we often use as a name for sayings, quotes, or other parts of every day speech, but this article will discuss phrases as they work in grammar.
It’s important to know the difference between a phrase and a clause. As you might know, a clause must include a subject and a predicate. A phrase, however, doesn’t contain a subject and a predicate, so while it’s found within a clause, a phrase can’t be a clause. Instead, a phrase can be made up of any two or more connected words that don’t make a clause. For example, “buttery popcorn” is a phrase, but “I eat buttery popcorn” is a clause.
Because it isn’t a clause, a phrase is never a full sentence on its own.
2. Examples of Phrases
Phrases are a huge part of speaking and writing in English. Here are a few you are probably familiar with, and their types, which will be explained later:
- Once in a blue moon (prepositional phrase)
- Reading a book (present participle phrase)
- To be free (infinitive phrase)
- Totally delicious food (noun phrase)
- Running water (gerund phrase)
As you can see, none of the groups of words above are full sentences, but they still work together—which is why we have phrases!
3. Types of Phrases
The English language has an endless number of phrases. Different types of phrases serve different purposes and have different functions within sentences. All of the types here are both important and used all of the time in our everyday language. In fact, you probably use all of these types and just don’t know their names!
a. Prepositional Phrase
A prepositional phrase is a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends with a noun, pronoun, or clause (called the object of the preposition). For example,
The dog is at the county fair.
In this sentence, “at the county fair” begins with a preposition (at) and ends with a noun (carnival), making it the prepositional phrase.
b. Participle Phrase
A participle phrase begins with a past or present participle, and is usually combined with an object or modifier. Present participles always end in ing, but past participles vary; regular verbs end in ed while irregular words are different. Participle phrases work like adjectives, describing something in the sentence:
- I saw the dog running towards the county fair (present participle)
- The dog ran towards the county fair. (past participle)
In the first sentence, the participle phrase “running towards the county fair” works as an adjective. It combines the present participle “running” with “towards the county fair” to describe the dog. In the second, the past participle “ran” does the same. Here are two more examples:
- Eating popcorn, the dog was very happy.
- The dog’s belly was stuffed with popcorn.
The participle phrase underlined in the first sentence describes the dog, and the participle phrase in the second describes the dog’s belly.
c. Noun Phrase
A noun phrase has a noun or pronoun as the main word, and acts like a noun in a sentence. Sometimes it includes a modifier, like an adjective, for example “big dog” and “brown fur.” Or, a noun phrase can be longer, like “the big dog with brown fur.” Here’s a full sentence:
The big dog with hot popcorn ran to the county fair.
You can tell that the underlined phrase acts as a noun because you could switch it with a single noun, like dog, and the sentence would still be correct. Here’s another example:
I bought a neon green ten-speed bicycle.
Again, let’s switch out the underlined phrase with a single noun to make sure the noun phrase works properly:
I bought a bicycle.
So, you can see that replacing the noun phrase with the single noun “bicycle” still gives us a correct complete sentence.
d. Infinitive Phrase
Quite simply, infinitive phrases start with an infinitive (to + simple form of a verb), and include modifiers or objects.
The dog likes to eat popcorn.
The phrase above uses the infinitive “to eat” combined with the object “popcorn.” Here’s another:
I want to pet the dog.
e. Gerund Phrase
A gerund phrase begins with a gerund (a word ending in ing), and includes modifiers or objects.
The dog ate steaming popcorn.
Here, the gerund “steaming” is combined with the object “popcorn” to create a gerund phrase. Here’s another example:
Running water is hard to find in this small village.
Like noun phrases, gerund phrases always work as nouns, and that’s how you tell the difference between a gerund phrase and a present participle phrase. A gerund phrase can replace a noun, while a participle phrase works like an adjective. Compare these two sentences:
The dog ate steaming popcorn. Gerund phrase showing what the dog eats (noun)
The dog was steaming popcorn for the party. Participle phrase describing the dog’s action (adjective)
f. Appositive Phrase
An appositive phrase is a noun or noun phrase that gives another name to the noun next to it. It makes a sentence more descriptive:
- The dog’s favorite food, popcorn
- The dog’s favorite food, hot, salty, buttery popcorn
In both lines above, the underlined parts are appositive phrases that give another name to the noun phrase “the dog’s favorite food.” Here’s are two more:
- The popcorn-eater was a big fluffy beast, a dog.
- The popcorn-eater was a dog, a beagle.
The first sentence describes the dog, and then names what it is. The second sentence says dog, and then specifies what type of dog. Appositive phrases always follow this form.
g. Absolute Phrase
An absolute phrase combines a noun, a participle, and sometimes other modifiers or objects that go with them. It is used to modify a whole clause or sentence.
This absolute phrase has a noun (popcorn) and a participle (popping):
- Popcorn popping, the dog was ready for the movie.
- “Popcorn popping” modifies the clause “the dog was ready for the movie.”
Absolute phrases are optional parts of sentences, so if you one out, the sentence should still work normally—for instance, if you remove “popcorn popping,” “The dog was ready for the movie” still forms a complete sentence.
This absolute phrase has a noun phrase (the dog’s mouth), a participle (watering), and modifier (with excitement):
Mouth watering with excitement, the dog dreamed of eating popcorn.
Here, the absolute phrase modifies the clause “the dog dreamed of eating popcorn.”
4. How to Write a Phrase
Phrases are pretty easy to use in every day writing and speaking. In fact, most logical combinations of words (that aren’t clauses, of course) are phrases. They can take on all kinds of forms and combinations. They can be short, like “the furry dog,” or long, like “the furry dog that liked eating popcorn every day for breakfast.” Being able to distinguish phrases from clauses is what’s most important when writing and identifying them in writing or speech. The best way to do that is to break a sentence or group of words down into parts.
So, let’s make sure the difference between phrases and clauses is clear. To review, a phrase can contain a noun and a verb, but it doesn’t have the subject-predicate combination required to make a clause. A clause follows the pattern Subject + Predicate. Let’s look at this phrase:
The running dog
Here, “the running dog” is a phrase that includes the noun “dog” and the verb “running;” but, there is no predicate—it follows the pattern Verb + Noun, and does not have a subject. But, we can use this phrase to make a full sentence. To make a complete sentence, the phrase “the running dog” works as the subject:
The running dog is hungry.
Here, the subject “the running dog” combined with the predicate “is hungry” makes a full sentence. So, the phrase itself does not have a subject and a predicate, but is part of the subject-predicate combination that makes a sentence.