What Is a Phrase? (with Examples)
PhraseA phrase is a group of words that stands together as a single grammatical unit, typically as part of a clause or a sentence.
A phrase does not contain a subject and verb and, consequently, cannot convey a complete thought. A phrase contrasts with a clause. A clause does contain a subject and verb, and it can convey a complete idea.
Easy Examples of PhrasesLet's start with a sentence that has no phrases and then build some in.
- Janet eats cakes daily. (This sentence has no phrases. All of the parts of the sentence are single words.)
- My cousin Janet eats cakes daily. (Now we have a phrase. It's a three-word phrase functioning as the subject of this sentence. Note that the phrase itself does not contain its own subject and verb.)
- My cousin Janet eats cakes during the week. (We've added another phrase. This one also has three words, but it is functioning as an adverb.)
- My cousin Janet was eating cakes during the week. (We've added another phrase. This one has two words. It is a multi-word verb.)
- My cousin Janet was eating cream cakes from the bakery during the week. (We've added another phrase. This one has five words. It is functioning as a direct object in this sentence.)
The term "cream cakes from the bakery" has its own embedded phrase ("from the bakery"). This is a prepositional phrase describing the "cream cakes." So, it's possible to have a phrase within a phrase. It's common in fact. There's more. The words "was eating cream cakes from the bakery during the week" is also classified a phrase. It's called a verb phrase. (A verb phrase consists of a verb and all its modifiers. Those modifiers could also be phrases, as they are in this example.)
Common Types of PhraseHere are some examples of the common types of phrase.
Adjective PhraseAn adjective phrase is a group of words headed by an adjective that modifies a noun. In these examples, the adjective phrases are shaded and the head adjective is in bold.
- Dexter had noticeably evil eyes. (Here, the adjective phrase modifies "Dexter.")
- Victoria was immensely proud of us. (Here, the adjective phrase modifies "Victoria.")
- My auntie is the lady with all the unicorn tattoos. (The phrase "with all the unicorn tattoos" is a multi-word adjective describing "the lady," but it is not headed by an adjective (hence no word in bold). Headed by the preposition "with," this is an example of a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective. It is best classified as an adjectival phrase as opposed to an adjective phrase.)
Adverbial PhraseAn adverbial phrase is a group of words that functions as an adverb. In these examples, the adverbial phrases are shaded.
- He sings in a low register. (Here, "in a low register" modifies the verb "sings." As it is headed by the preposition "in," this adverbial phrase is also a prepositional phrase.)
- Luckily for us, we arrived just in time. (Here, the adverbial phrase modifies the verb "arrived.")
Noun PhraseA noun phrase consists of a noun and all its modifiers. In these examples, the noun phrases are shaded and the head nouns are in bold.
- How much is that doggy in the window? (Here, the head noun is "doggy." "That" is a modifier. "In the window" is also a modifier (a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective describing "doggy.")
- You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans. (Here, the modifier "of eating jellybeans" is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective describing "way." The prepositional phrase itself contains the gerund phrase (see below) "eating jellybeans." So this simple noun phrase has an embedded phrase that itself has an embedded phrase. As you can see, the term "phrase" has a broad scope. Remember that a phrase is any group of words that function as a single unit.)
Prepositional PhraseA prepositional phrase is a group of words that consists of a preposition, its object (which will be a noun or a pronoun), and any words that modify the object. In these examples, the prepositional phrases are shaded and the prepositions are in bold.
- I lived near the beach. (As is the case here, a prepositional phrase can stand alone as a single unit within a sentence. Here, the prepositional phrase is an adverb of place.)
- How much is that doggy in the window? (Quite often, a prepositional phrase features in another phrase. Remember this example from above? Here, the prepositional phrase is functioning as an adjective describing "doggy." It is part of the noun phrase "that doggy in the window.")
- You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans. (Remember this example from above? Here, the prepositional phrase is functioning as an adverb modifying "can tell." Notice that the highlighted prepositional phrase includes another prepositional phrase ("of eating jellybeans"). Yeah, it can get complicated.)
Gerund PhraseA gerund phrase is a phrase that consists of a gerund, its object, and any modifiers. In these examples, the gerund phrases are shaded and the gerunds are in bold.
- Moving quickly but stealthily is the key to survival.
- Arithmetic is the ability to count up to twenty without taking off your shoes. (Mickey Mouse)
Infinitive PhraseAn infinitive phrase is the infinitive form of a verb plus any complements and modifiers. In these examples, the infinitive phrases are shaded and the infinitive verbs are in bold.
- She tells you to dance like no one is watching.
- The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. (Author Marianne Williamson)
Participle PhraseA participle phrase is an adjective phrase headed by a participle. In these examples, the participle phrases are shaded and the participles are in bold.
- Overcome with disappointment, the professor shook his head and sighed.
- Within 5 seconds, the dog chasing the hare was out of sight.
Appositive PhraseAn appositive is a noun or a noun phrase that sits next to another noun to rename it or to describe it in another way. In these examples, the appositives are shaded.
- Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, became Queen of England in 1558.
- Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, is often called USA's greatest inventor.
Phrases Functioning as Different Parts of SpeechHere is a list of the parts of speech with an example of a phrase functioning as each one.
- I am looking for a book to make me laugh. (This is an example of an infinitive phrase functioning as an adjective. It describes "a book." Phrases commonly function as adjectives.)
- I am going there to support you. (This is an example of an infinitive phrase functioning as an adverb. It is an adverb of reason. Phrases commonly function as adverbs.)
- I am not only angry but also disappointed. (This is an example of a phrase functioning as a conjunction. Most conjunctions are single words, not phrases. This is an example of a correlative conjunction.)
- I know a few people who could give you a hundred and one reasons. (In this example, there are two phrases functioning as determiners. These determiners are both quantifiers. Most determiners are single words.)
- Holy moly! She won! (This is an example of a phrase functioning as an interjection. Most interjections are single words.)
- Running the tap is necessary to clear the air pocket. (This is an example of a gerund phrase functioning as a noun. Phrases commonly function as nouns.)
- According to Mark, the system is broken. (This is an example of a phrase functioning as a preposition. Most prepositions are single words.)
- No one is infallible. (This is an example of a phrase functioning as a pronoun. Most pronouns are single words.)
- I am going there to support you. (This is an example of a phrase functioning as a verb. Only one-word verbs (e.g., play, think) in the simple past tense (played, thought) and the simple present tense (plays, thinks) are single words. The rest are phrases that include auxiliary verbs.)
The Hierarchy of Word UnitsThe hierarchy of word units is:
- Word (e.g., Shark) (A word is the smallest meaningful unit.)
- Phrase (e.g., A seven-foot tiger shark) (A phrase is a single piece of information made up of more than one word. It will not contain a subject and a verb.)
- Clause (e.g., When a seven-foot tiger shark arrived...) (A clause is a single piece of information made up of more than one word which contains a subject and a verb.)
- Sentence (e.g., A seven-foot tiger shark arrived.) (A sentence conveys a complete idea. It must contain at least one clause. Note: A clause that stands alone as a sentence is known as an independent clause.)
- Complex Sentence (e.g., When a seven-foot tiger shark arrived, the crew stopped fishing.) (A complex sentence is an independent clause supported by at least one other clause.)
- Compound Sentence (e.g., A seven-foot tiger shark arrived, and the crew stopped fishing.) (A compound sentence is a sentence made up of at least two independent clauses.)
Why Should I Care about Phrases?As we've covered, the scope of the term "phrase" is wide, and it is not uncommon to have a phrase that has another phrase embedded within it, which itself could have an embedded phrase. That sounds complicated, and it can be, but here's one simple, key fact about every phrase: it will only function as one part of speech.
That said, here are the top seven writing issues related to phrases.
(Issue 1) When your noun phrase is the subject of a verb, ensure subject-verb agreement with the head noun.
- The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets give us the term "the full nine yards." (The head noun in this noun phrase is "belt." All the other words in the noun phrase are modifiers. As "belt" is singular, the verb "give" is wrong. It should be "gives.")
- The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets gives us the term "the full nine yards."
Read more about subject-verb agreement.
(Issue 2) Avoid ambiguity when placing your prepositional phrase.Ambiguity with prepositional phrases can be an issue. Look at this example:
- Mark fed the shark in the cage. (Does the prepositional phrase tell us where Mark was when he fed the shark, or does it tell us which shark Mark fed? Is "in the cage" functioning as an adverb modifying "fed" or an adjective modifying "shark"? If you read it as an adverb (i.e., telling us where Mark was), you might assume there was just one shark. If you read it as an adjective (i.e., "the shark that was in the cage"), you would assume there were other sharks.)
- Mark was in the cage when he fed the shark.
- Mark fed the shark that was in the cage.
- Simon and his mother were reunited after 52 years in McDonald's.
If your prepositional phrase is ambiguous, move it next to (usually immediately to the right of) whatever it's meant to be modifying. That usually does the trick. For example:
- Simon and his mother were reunited in McDonald's after 52 years.
- Joe hit the burglar with a hammer. (ambiguous)
- Joe hit with a hammer the burglar . (unwieldy)
- Joe used a hammer to hit the burglar. (This reworded version works.)
(Issue 3) Don't use a hyphen with an adverb ending "-ly."When an adverb ending -"ly" (and lots do) is modifying an adjective, don't use a hyphen to join it to the adjective. The hyphen is unjustified (in the interest of writing efficiency).
- She has beautifully-formed feet. (The hyphen is unjustified when the adverb ends -"ly.")
(Issue 4) You can usually save two words by deleting "in order" in a phrase that starts "in order to."If you need to reduce your word count, you can usually replace "in order to" with just "to" without any loss of meaning. For example:
- You need a stubborn belief in an idea
in orderto see it realised. (Inventor James Dyson)
(Issue 5) Punctuate your participle phrases correctly.Here are some general guidelines to help with correctly placing and punctuating a participle phrase.
(Guideline 1) When a participle phrase is at the front of a sentence, offset it with a comma and put the noun being modified immediately after the comma.
- Removing his glasses, the professor shook his head with disappointment.
- Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
- The yellow Ferrari, unregistered in the UK and probably stolen in France, was used as the get-away car.
(Guideline 3) When a participle phrase is at the end of your sentence and not immediately after its noun, offset it with a comma to help show that it's not modifying whatever is to its left.
- The boys loved their boxing gloves, wearing them even to bed.
(Issue 6) Split infinitives are okay.Often, an infinitive phrase will feature a split infinitive(e.g., "to really try," "to secretly observe").
Using a split infinitive is usually the most succinct and natural way to write. However, there's an issue with the split infinitive: some regard it as non-standard English or even a grammar mistake. Let's be clear. Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable.
But, can you take the risk that some of your readers might consider you sloppy for using a split infinitive? Here's some advice: Have a quick go at rewording your sentence to avoid the split infinitive, but if your new sentence doesn't read as well (and it probably won't), go with the split infinitive.
In these examples, the split infinitives are in bold and the infinitive phrases are shaded:
- He needs to accurately present the facts.
- He needs to present the facts accurately. (The second version (the reworded version) is safer. It sounds okay, and it doesn't feature a split infinitive that could annoy some of your readers.)
(Issue 7) Gerunds can reduce your word count and improve reading flow.Gerund phrases are useful for reducing your word count and writing better-flowing sentences. Look at this sentence:
- The discovery of this new cave will assist with the facilitation of the exploration of the western tunnels. (This sentence has way too many nouns. It's long and stuffy, and it doesn't flow naturally.)
- Discovering this new cave will assist with exploring the western tunnels. (This version features two gerund phrases. It flows far better than the version above.)