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?

What are phrases?

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

This 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.

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 and its diagramming basics. You can also see more diagramming on the diagramming phrases page.

Prepositional Phrases

These function as adjectives or adverbs. There are two prepositional phrases 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?)

Are you wondering how to diagram prepositional phrases? I thought so. I have a knack for reading people's minds. Click on that link to learn more.

Learn more about prepositional phrases here.

Verb Phrases

These function as verbs. Keep in mind that in order to be a verb phrase, the verb must be made up of a main verb and at least one helping verb.

Sentence Diagram with Verb Phrase

She must have jumped across the stream.

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

Learn more about verb phrases here.

Appositive Phrases

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

In this example, sister is the appositive which is 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.

Learn more about appositive phrases here.


The following three phrases (gerunds, participles, and infinitives) are called verbals. This is because they are formed from verbs. (But be careful! They don't function as verbs)

Gerund Phrases

These function as nouns, and 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.

Learn more about gerunds and gerund phrases here.

Participial Phrases

These 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.

Learn more about participles and participial phrases here.

Dangling Participles

Learn about dangling participles and why you should avoid them.

Infinitive Phrases

These 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.

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.

Learn more about infinitives and infinitive phrases here.

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Understand English phrases? Learn about the types of sentences.