For Part 2 of my “Clauses and Phrases” post (Part 1 can be found here), I’ll be focusing on phrases. Like clauses, phrases help connect ideas. They also expand on them and give details that otherwise wouldn’t be known.
Phrase placement and what to include are the biggest factors in writing fiction and nonfiction pieces. Manipulation of phrases is essential to good writing and can provide readers with subtle hints.
What Is a Phrase?
A phrase is a group of related words within a sentence that functions as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or preposition. They contain a subject or a predicate but never both. They cannot stand on their own and function as a small element of the overall sentence.
There are seven basic types of phrases. Each type functions as a different part of speech and typically modifies a noun. However, as in the case of an absolute phrase, phrases can sometimes modify the entire sentence.
A noun phrase consists of a noun and any other related words that modify it. This can include articles, adjectives, and even other phrases. The entire noun phrase functions as a noun in the overall sentence and can be used as the subject or an object.
Example A: The girl in the yellow hat walked through the park.
Example B: We visited the newly constructed movie theater.
Within the category of noun phrase, there are three subtypes: appositive, gerund, and infinitive phrases. Each functions as specialized noun phrase.
An appositive phrase renames another noun in the overall sentence—usually one that immediately precedes it. It acts as a parenthetical phrase that often further explains the noun that it modifies, so it is considered nonessential to the sentence and should be set off with commas.
Example: My neighbor’s cat, a large Maine Coon, greets me whenever I come to visit.
A gerund phrase consists of an –ing verb (a gerund) and other modifiers. The whole phrase then acts as a noun in the overall sentence. A gerund can act as a subject, an object, and sometimes an appositive.
Example A: Baking cakes is one of my hobbies.
Example B: My dad likes to go fishing on the weekend.
Example C: My lifelong passion, becoming a writer, has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.
An infinitive phrase uses the word “to” and the simple form of a verb with other modifiers to create a phrase. The phrase then can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb within the overall sentence.
Be careful not to confuse an infinitive phrase with a prepositional one though. “To” is indeed a common preposition, which usually heads a prepositional phrase; however, an infinitive phrase will always use a simple verb with the word “to” to create the phrase. A prepositional phrase will not.
Example A: I love to eat cookies.
Example B: Her plans to hang out with friends changed after she got her assignments for the day.
Example C: He drove to the store to shop for groceries.
A verb phrase is simply a main verb and its auxiliary or helping verbs (a verb group). However, it can also consist of other modifiers, so it can potentially refer to the entire predicate of a sentence.
Example A: He is tying a knot.
Example B: We have been volunteering at a local shelter.
(“Have been volunteering” is the main verb group in this sentence.)
An adverbial phrase consists of adverbs or another group of words (usually a prepositional phrase) that functions as an adverb in a sentence. In other words, it modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.
Example A: The curtain closed very slowly at the end of the show.
Example B: The apple rolled under the table.
An adjectival phrase consists of adjectives and any modifiers or another group of words that functions as an adjective in a sentence. Adjective phrases always modify nouns.
Example A: The big red ball bounced down the street.
Example B: The boy with the blue shirt often sits in front of me on the bus.
A participial phrase consists of a verb ending in –ing (present participle) or a past tense verb as well as other modifiers. It acts as an adjective within a sentence and can be essential or nonessential. If it is a nonessential phrase within a sentence, it is set off with commas.
Example A: The boy sitting in the first row forgot his notebook today.
(Essential – The phrase specifies which boy is being referred to.)
Example B: Sitting in the first row, Michael searched for his lost notebook.
(Nonessential – Where Michael is sitting is irrelevant to what he is doing/the overall meaning of the sentence.)
Example C: Devastated that she couldn’t find her favorite shoes, Mira settled for a comfortable pair of flats.
(Nonessential – Why Mira settled for the flats doesn’t matter for the overall message of the sentence.)
A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, an object of that preposition, and often other modifiers/adjectives. It acts as an adjective or adverb within a sentence.
Example A: The pot on the stove was still hot.
Example B: The ball rolled over the hill.
An absolute phrase is a group of words containing a noun or pronoun and participle (and often other modifiers) that modifies the entire sentence. Very close to a clause, it can contain every element found in a sentence except a finite verb. Absolute phrases are considered nonessential elements in a sentence because they provide extra information that doesn’t change the overall meaning of the sentence, so they are set off with commas.
Example A: Her head held high, she entered the room with as much confidence as she could muster.
(With the finite verb “was,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: Her head was held high.)
Example B: He shuffled across the room, his eyes scanning for anything unusual.
(With the finite verb “were,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: His eyes were scanning for anything unusual.)
In a nutshell, phrases are bit tricky, but with some practice, mastering them can give you an edge on your writing and make it flourish.