Phrase

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This article is part of the grammar course.

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Words are commonly combined into phrases. In the study of grammar, the word phrase has a much tighter meaning than in everyday English. A phrase is a group of words, the meaning of which relies on the structure of the group. They can be classified in two main ways: by their form - how they are made (what sorts of words make them); and by their function (the job they do in a sentence).

Two common sorts of phrases that are defined by their form are verb phrases and preposition phrases:

  • Verb phrases are combinations of verbs that indicate the tense or the mood of a verbal idea, e.g. "I may have been bored" (a verb phrase with 4 words); "he was thinking" (2 word verb phrase); "it will have been three days since ..." (3 word verb phrase); "she said..." (1 word verb phrase).
  • Preposition phrases are phrases where a noun (+ extra words, or not) is joined to the rest of the sentence by a preposition, e.g. "the Queen of Britain" (the simplest possible preposition phrase, with just preposition + noun); "she hit him on the head" (3 words, preposition + article + noun); "he was dressed in an extraordinarily bright green suit" (6 words, preposition + article + adverb + adjective + adjective + noun).

A phrase defined by its function is usually a group of words that does the same job as a word in one of the semantic Word Classes.

  • Noun Phrases do the same job as nouns. They are usually two or more words in length (though it can be useful to be able to classify a single noun (or even a pronoun) as a Noun Phrase, most commonly when analysing grammar for purposes of computerising 'natural language'.) The commonest has article + noun (the boy, a car, etc); then the ones that insert an adjective between the article and the noun (the small boy, a red car, etc.). In theory, one can add as many adjectives (and nouns used as adjectives) as one likes, along with adverbs: the very small rather cheeky boy; a powerful, smart, bright red-brown Rolls Royce car, etc.
  • Adjective Phrases work like adjectives, to describe nouns - though, unlike adjectives, they usually follow the noun they qualify. They often take the form of Preposition Phrases. Examples: the man with the hat; the picture on the wall; the house on the right; Who is that between Sarah and her sister? etc.
  • A special form of adjectival phrase is the Possessive Phrase - with the preposition of + a Noun Phrase: the ideas of Marx; the beauty of the lilies; the campus of Hull University; the University of Hull; etc. This is equivalent to the possessive Marx's ideas, etc.
  • Like adverbs, Adverbial Phrases (which often take the form of Prepositional Phrases) tell your reader more about how, where or when the action of a Verb is 'carried out'. Examples: she spoke in a threatening manner (how); he laughed with a glint in his eye (note how this breaks down: [with a glint [in his eye] ] - there are two adverb phrases here, one saying 'where the glint was' inside the other which says 'how he laughed'); I'll see you after the lecture (when); we'll talk after lunch in my office (there are two adverb phrases here, separately: [after lunch] (when) and [in my office ] (where); we'll talk in more detail after lunch in my office (how, when and where); etc.

Note that phrases, like other elements of grammar, can be recursive (or nested): there can be phrases inside phrases. This process can in theory be prolonged indefinitely.