"What Is a Phrase in Grammar?" Oregon State Guide to Grammar

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What is a Phrase? - Transcript

Written by J.T. Bushnell, Oregon State University Senior Lecturer

Performed by Carlee Baker, Oregon State University M.A. Student

Phrases and clauses are both groups of words. The essential difference between them is their level of completeness. A phrase is pretty incomplete. It’s a group of words that functions as a unit but lacks a subject or predicate.

There are noun phrases, for example. A goat. The fainting goat. Sofia’s short spotted fainting goat. In each case, the noun is the main idea – “goat” – and all the other words describe it, telling us which goat or what kind of goat. But there’s no predicating verb to go with it, so we know it’s only a phrase.

There are also verb phrases. Fainted. Fainting suddenly. Has suddenly and hilariously fainted. A verb is the main idea – “faint” – and all the other words describe it or complete its construction. But there’s no subject to go with it, so it’s a phrase.

Finally, there are prepositional phrases, which are a preposition followed by a noun or noun phrase. In the pasture. To the ground. After a loud noise. Prepositional phrases offer additional commentary, and they can do it for both nouns – the goat in the pasture – and verbs – fainted in the pasture. They function kind of like adjectives and adverbs, and for that reason, we call them adjectival phrases when they modify the noun, adverbial phrases when they modify the verb.

And actually, that’s the way the elements within a phrase operate. All those extra words clump around the main idea to comment on it adjectivally or adverbially. That’s what prevents the phrase from ever becoming something more complete, even when there are nouns and verbs together in a phrase. Take “the fainting goat,” for example. We have a verb – “fainting” – and a noun – “goat.” The verb here isn’t acting like a verb, at least not like a predicating one. It’s functioning adjectivally, describing the noun, rather than signaling any kind of action taking place. And so we know that clump of words, “the fainting goat,” is only a phrase. There’s no predicate.

That middleness, that cohesion without completeness, is what really defines a phrase. For that reason, it can never stand up on its own as a complete sentence. Like we string together relevant words to form a phrase, we also string together relevant phrases to form a full clause or sentence. A goat … has fainted. That’s a noun phrase and a verb phrase, a subject and a predicate, working together to form something more complete.

And we can keep piling them up. Sofia’s short spotted fainting goat … in the pasture … has suddenly and hilariously fainted … after a loud noise. Here we’ve got one phrase of every kind: a noun phrase, a verb phrase, and two prepositional phrases – one that’s adjectival and one that’s adverbial. Let us know in the comments if you can identify them all.

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The Oregon State Guide to Grammar