What is a phrase?

Grammatical phrases are groups of two or more words that work together to perform a single grammatical function in a sentence. Unlike clauses, phrases do not contain both a subject and a predicate (although they sometimes function as one or the other).

Phrases from the parts of speech

Most of the parts of speech can be made into phrases by adding information that is directly associated with them.
Below, we’ll look at a breakdown of each type of phrase that is formed from a part of speech, including some examples of the various types of phrases and how each functions in a sentence. To learn more, go to the sections that discuss each type of phrase.

Noun Phrases

A noun phrase consists of a noun plus any determiners or modifiers directly related to it. Noun phrases always have the grammatical function of nouns in a sentence.
Noun phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
a book — determiner a + noun book
“I found a book I'd like to read.”
her sweetly smiling child — determiner her + adverb sweetly + adjective (present participle) smiling + noun child
“She gazed lovingly at her sweetly smiling child.”
the red car — determiner the + adjective red + noun car
The red car belongs to me.”

Verb Phrases

A verb phrase can either be made up of an auxiliary verb and its main verb, or a verb plus any modifiers, objects, or complements.* Verb phrases are used to form perfect or continuous verb tenses, to express modality, or as part (or all) of the predicate.
Verb phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
am running — auxiliary verb am + present participle running
“I am running late.” (forms the present continuous tense)
have completed — auxiliary verb have + past participle completed
“They have completed work on the building.” (forms the present perfect tense)
quickly ran to the bus — adverb quickly + verb ran + prepositional phrase to the bus
“She quickly ran to the bus.” (forms the predicate)
plays the trombone — verb plays + object the trombone
“My brother plays the trombone.” (forms the predicate)

*Notes on verb phrases

There are two different definitions of what constitutes a verb phrase.
In traditional grammar, a verb phrase is made up of an auxiliary verb plus the main verb(s) that follow it. For example:
  • “We were running late.”
  • “I have been learning Arabic.”
  • “They will call you tomorrow.”
More modern theories of grammar, however, define verb phrases as being any main verb (or combination of main and auxiliary verbs) in a clause plus its constituent parts—that is, any modifiers or objects that complete its meaning. These verb phrases are, according to this definition, what forms (or adds to) the predicate of a sentence. For example:
  • “My brother is running late for school again.”
  • “Our teacher looks tired; she must have been up late last night.”
This guide takes a more all-inclusive approach for the term verb phrase. In a situation in which we are analyzing everything that belongs to a certain verb, it will be referred to as a verb phrase. Likewise, when we’re describing the use of auxiliary verbs to create different verb tenses or modal constructions, the overall verb that is constructed may also be called a verb phrase.

Adjective Phrases

An adjective phrase is made up of an adjective along with any determiners, modifiers, or adjective complements that modify or complete the adjective’s meaning. The entire phrase functions as an adjective in a sentence, modifying a noun.
Adjective phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
my favorite — determiner my + adjective favorite
“I brought my favorite jacket to school.”
wonderfully talented — adverb wonderfully + adjective talented
“The singer was wonderfully talented.”
alone in the world — adjective alone + adjective complement in the world
“She felt alone in the world.”

Adverbial Phrases

An adverbial phrase may consist of an adverb plus any determiners and supplemental information, or an adverb plus an adverb of degree, or an adverbial prepositional phrase. (Prepositional phrases are so often adverbial that they are commonly included in definitions of adverbial phrases.)
Adverbial phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
once a week — adverb once + noun phrase a week
“My dad swims once a week.”
too quickly — intensifier too + adverb quickly
“Don't run too quickly!”
down the street — adverbial prepositional phrase
“We walked down the street.”

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases consist of a preposition and its object. They most commonly function as adverbs, but they can also be adjectival.
Prepositional phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
on the wall — preposition on + object the wall
“We hung the painting on the wall.” (adverbial prepositional phrase)
in the driveway — preposition in + object the driveway
“The car in the driveway is my dad’s.” (adjectival prepositional phrase)

Gerund Phrases

A gerund phrase is formed when a gerund (the “-ing” form of a verb used as a noun) is accompanied by any modifiers and/or objects. The entire phrase functions as a noun, meaning it can be the subject of a clause or an object of a verb or preposition.
Gerund phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
swimming every day — gerund swimming + adverbial phrase every day
Swimming every day is good for your health.”
reading books in the dark — gerund reading + object books + adverbial prepositional phrase in the dark
“I wouldn't recommend reading books in the dark.”

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitive phrases are composed of the infinitive of a verb (the base form + the particle to) along with any objects or modifiers associated with it. Infinitives and infinitive phrases can function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs in a sentence.
Infinitive phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
to help one another — infinitive to help + object one another
“We must all try to help one another.” (functions as a noun, the direct object of try)
to stop for today — infinitive to stop + adverbial prepositional phrase for today
“This is a good place to stop for today.” (functions as an adjective, modifying the noun place)
to send my brother a letter — infinitive to send + indirect object my brother + direct object a letter
“I'm going to the post office to send my brother a letter.” (functions as an adverb, modifying the verb going)

Participle Phrases

Like gerunds and infinitives, participles are formed from verbs, so participle phrases are created when participles are accompanied by any modifiers or objects. Past and present participles (without modifiers or objects) can be used to create different verb tenses, but they can also function as adjectives. Participle phrases, however, can only function as adjectives in a sentence.
Participle phrase examples
How it appears in a sentence
destroyed in the accident — past participle destroyed + adverbial prepositional phrase in the accident
“My car, destroyed in the accident, was taken away by the tow truck.”
breaking the rules — present participle breaking + object the rules
“Participants breaking the rules will be removed from the competition.”

Phrases within phrases

As you might have noticed in the examples above, there are many instances in which one type of phrase has one or more other phrases within it. Take the following sentence, for example:
  • “The bright orange cat lives in the shed in the garden.”
There are actually seven phrases in this sentence. The two primary phrases are the noun phrase the bright orange cat (the subject) and the verb phrase lives in the shed in the garden (the predicate), and each of these phrases contains one or more smaller phrases. Let’s look at a breakdown below:
The Subject
The Predicate
Contains the noun phrase:
The bright orange cat
Contains the verb phrase:
lives in the shed in the garden
Contains the adjective phrase:
The bright orange (modifies the noun cat)
Contains the adverbial prepositional phrase:
in the shed in the garden (modifies the verb lives)
Contains the noun phrase:
the shed in the garden (object of the preposition in)
Contains the adjectival prepositional phrase:
in the garden (modifies the noun shed)
Contains the noun phrase:
the garden (object of the second preposition in)
When we are trying to examine all the parts of an individual sentence, it’s important to be able to recognize when one part is (or might be) made up of several other smaller elements.

Absolute Phrases and Appositive Phrases

There are two other types of phrases that we have not looked at yet—absolute phrases and appositive phrases. These are created from specific parts of speech and have specific functions in a sentence. We’ll briefly look at both below. You can continue on to their individual sections to learn more.

Absolute phrases

An absolute phrase or absolute construction is a grammatically independent group of words that modify or add information to the entire sentence. It is usually made up of a noun or pronoun and a participle, along with any modifiers or objects of the participle.
Absolute phrases usually appear at the beginning or end of a sentence to add descriptive information or provide a final comment on the sentence as a whole. They can also appear in the middle of the sentence to emphasize the additional information. They are always set apart from the rest of the sentence by commas or dashes.
For example:
  • The students having left early, I decided to catch up on some grading.”
  • “I hope to get into Harvard next year—God willing.”
  • “The teacher, her students having left early, decided to catch up on some grading.”

Appositive Phrases

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that serves to describe or rename another noun that appears directly before it in a sentence. Appositive phrases are usually (but not always) non-restrictive, meaning they provide information that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, and are separated from the rest of the sentence by one or two commas.
For example:
  • “The office, an old Georgian building, badly needed repairs.”
  • “Janet Smith, a former student of mine, is joining the faculty next spring.”
  • “Just meet me at my car, the old station wagon parked across the street.”

Other appositives

Note that an appositive can also be a proper noun that names or identifies a common noun. An appositive made up of a proper noun that contains more than one word is not considered an appositive phrase, but rather a single noun construction. For example:
  • “My brother Michael lives in New York.”
  • “America’s first president, George Washington, was born in the colony of Virginia.”

1. Which of the following types of phrases can function as a noun in a sentence?

2. Which of the following can be added to an adjective to create an adjective phrase?

3. Identify the type of phrase (in bold) in the following sentence:
“The bird flying above us landed on the tree.”

4. What does an absolute phrase modify?

5. What does an appositive phrase modify?

Chapter Sub-sections

Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.
Share Tweet