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Techniques > Use of language > Syntax > Phrases

Verb | Noun | Prepositional | Adjectival | See also


A phrase is a set of words that acts as in place of a single part of speech. They add richness and detail, and also may act to overload and confuse. Phrases are used within clauses, which are used within sentences.

Verb phrase

Verbs describe subjects, which thus must be referenced. Verb phrases are recognizable because they contain at least verbs and often auxiliary verbs and adverbs as well.

I shall soon be ready.

Running is good fun.

I have not seen it.

Noun phrase

The noun phrase is a string of words that all depend or focus in some way on a single noun. The words may be added before or after the noun. The noun is the head, or chief word, of the phrase and gives the starting point for analysis. Noun phrases also nest: they can contain and be contained within other noun phrases.

that big elephant

that remarkably interesting and big elephant

that remarkably interesting and big elephant which looks like a house with a tail at one and a drainpipe at the other

Noun phrases can include any words, but particularly often include determiners and other adjectives, which usually appear before the noun. After the noun, a common addition is a prepositional phrase.

Extended phrases and the sequence used can introduce ambiguity, which may or may not be desirable.

There is a man in the corner looking at the picture. (unambiguous)

There is a man looking at the picture in the corner. (ambiguous)

Prepositional phrase

Prepositional phrases start with a preposition. Like prepositions, they may be placed before or after the rest of the clause or phrase, although they more often appear after.

After the accident, the car was replaced.

The car was replaced after the accident.

I listened to Mozart on the radio.

Dangling prepositional phrases occur where the preposition is separated from the words they modify, leading to ambiguity.

I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. (confusion!)

I once, whilst in my pyjamas, shot an elephant. (better...)

Adjectival phrases

Adjectival phrases either expand noun phrases or complete the verb (acting as the complement). The adjective is often modified by an adverb.

We have a house full of friends.

Our team is really enthusiastic.


Other phrase types

There are other types of phrase

Appositive phrases

Appositive phrases are used to clarify a nearby noun by adding further description.

Jennifer Eccles, a rather clever young lady, is coming here today.

Infinitive phrases

Infinitive phrases take the infinitive form of the verb ('to ...') and behave as nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Participial phrases

Participial phrases are marked by either the present or the past participle of a verb, although in sentences they behave as adjectives.

Saying he would fight, the soldier got up.

Gerund phrases

Gerund phrases end in –ing, but always behave as nouns.

The weeping of the women and the wailing of the children made Jim very tired.

Absolute phrases

Absolute phrases are complete sentences from which the verb has either change into a verb phrase or has disappeared.

The work having been done, we grabbed a cab.


See also

Using Commands


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