What are phrases?

Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

What are phrases?

Phrases are units of language that we use all of the time. Do you know what they are? Don't worry! We'll go over them right now. 

What are phrases?

Phrases are groups of words, without both a subject and a verb,
functioning as a single part of speech.

What does that mean?

It means that while a phrase is made up of multiple words (all of which have their own function), all of the words work together to perform one larger function. They kind of remind me of a choir. A choir is made up of individual voices, but all of the voices come together to sing one song.

Psst! This has nothing to do with grammar, but I just thought I'd let you know that I was president of my high school choir. This is kind of embarrassing, but I feel like I need to share a photo with you. Here's my senior picture back in my days of being choir president.  

Okay, back to the topic at hand... 

High School Days

There are many different kinds of phrases, and we're going to explore quite a few of them. Are you ready? Great!

Phrases - The Basics

Here is a brief overview of each phrase. Click on the links in each section to learn more about each one.

You'll also find examples of how each one is diagrammed. I'm a big fan of diagramming sentences because it helps you SEE how words are related, and it's fun! 

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases are made of a preposition and a noun or a pronoun, and they function as adjectives or adverbs. There are two in the example below.

Sentence Diagram with Prepositional Phrases

The cake with nuts fell onto the floor.

With nuts is a prepositional phrase that is acting as an adjective. You can tell that it's an adjective because the word with is branching off of the noun cake. (You remember that adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, right?)

Onto the floor is a prepositional phrase that is acting as an adverb. You can tell that it's an adverb because the word onto is branching off of the verb fell. (You remember that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, right?)

Verb Phrases

Verb phrases are made of a main verb and at least one helping verb, functioning all together as a single verb. 

Sentence Diagram with Verb Phrase

She must have jumped across the stream.

Must and have are helping verbs. Jumped is a main verb.

Appositive Phrases

An appositive is a noun that renames another noun or pronoun. An appositive phrase consists of the appositive and all of its modifiers.

In the example below, sister is the appositive renaming Esther, and my sister with dark hair is the appositive phrase.

Sentence Diagram with Appositive Phrase

Esther, my sister with dark hair, sang a song.

Verbals

The following three phrases (gerunds, participles, and infinitives) are called verbals. Why? It's because they're formed from verbs, but you have to be careful because they don't function as verbs. 

Warning: Verbals are an advanced grammar topic, so if you're just starting to learn grammar, you might want to skip these until you're comfortable with the basics.

Gerund Phrases

Gerunds are formed from verbs, but function as nouns. They end in -ing.

Sentence Diagram with Gerund Phrase

I like swimming in lakes.

Swimming in lakes is a gerund phrase functioning as the direct object of the verb like.

Participial Phrases

Participles act as adjectives, and they end in -ing, -d, -t, or -n.

Sentence Diagram with Participial Phrase

Throwing rocks across the water, my friend smiled.

Throwing rocks across the water is a participial phrase modifying the noun friend.

You may have also heard of dangling participles. Dangling particles occur when the particle doesn't have anything to modify. You should avoid them.

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitives act as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. They begin with to + a verb.

Sometimes they have a "silent to". By that, I mean that sometimes the word to is implied. Tricky!

Sentence Diagram with Infinitive Phrase

I swore to tie my shoes tighter in the future.

To tie my shoes tighter in the future is an infinitive phrase functioning as the direct object of the verb swore.

High five!

You're kind of a phrases pro now that you've read over this whole page. For your effort, I'm awarding you this prestigious gold star:

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Elizabeth O'Brien

Elizabeth O'Brien is the creator of Grammar Revolution.

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Understand English phrases? Learn about the types of sentences.