Phrases: What Are Phrases?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 14, 2023

Phrases are a major part of sentence structure, and every sentence contains one. But do you know what they are? If you don't, fear not, as that's what we're here today for.

In short, a phrase is a group of words that are part of a sentence but don't convey a complete thought. They provide additional information about the rest of the sentence.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Phrases?

A phrase is a group of words that form a grammatical unit and provides additional information about the rest of the sentence. It’s a single piece of information provided in the form of several words.

In sentence structure hierarchy, it goes like this: sentence > clause > phrase > word.

Phrases are part of clauses, which are part of sentences. The two defining characteristics of a phrase are:

  • A phrase can’t stand alone because it doesn’t contain a subject and predicate, so it can’t convey a complete thought. If used alone, it would be considered a sentence fragment.
  • Phrases can be removed, and the sentence would still make sense. However, they are useful to have because they provide additional information and detail.

I like to run in the morning.

In the above example, 'in the morning' is a phrase. If you remove it, the sentence still makes sense, which shows that phrases aren't an essential part of sentences. However, removing the phrase makes the sentence more general and no longer provides information on when the speaker likes to run. Notice also how 'in the morning' on its own does not make sense, which differentiates it from a clause or a sentence, which could stand alone.

Phrases and their Different Types

There are eight main types of phrases used in English grammar. Let’s go over them one by one.

Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase, as the name suggests, is a phrase that describes a noun. That's not to say that every word in the phrase is an adjective, however. In fact, you can find almost any word type in an adjective phrase. It just means that the phrase as a whole describes the noun.

That was the most hilarious and witty show I've seen in a long time.

In the above sentence, the noun is 'show,' and the adjective phrase (underlined) describes that noun. Here are some more examples:

I need a reliable car that's big enough for all my kids.

That's the scariest movie ever.

Adverbial Phrase

Adverbial phrases have the same function as adverbs, but instead of a single word, they're made up of a group of words. They provide information about the verb, adjective, or another adverb. Here we can use our earlier example to demonstrate:

I like to run in the morning.

The adverbial phrase 'in the morning' gives more information about the verb 'run.' Specifically, it tells us when they like to run.

An adverbial phrase could also provide information about how, where, how often, and why the verb is performed, among other things, just the way adverbs do. Here are some examples that demonstrate this:

She cleaned her room as quickly as possible

Our plan is to spend time in all seven continents.

Once a week I work from a cafe.

I'm working overtime to save up a deposit for a house.

Notice that the phrase in the final example contains a verb, but that still doesn't make it a clause or a complete sentence because it doesn't contain a subject.

Noun Phrase

Noun phrases are a group of words that include a noun or a pronoun and its modifiers. As long as the phrase revolves around a noun (or pronoun), you can be sure it's a noun phrase.

For example:

I'm looking for a large oak desk with drawers to put in my studio.

Have you seen the pen from earlier?

She's reading lots of books about Italy.

Gerund Phrase

Gerunds are words that end in -ing, which makes them look like verbs, but they are actually nouns. Gerund phrases are phrases that consist of a gerund and other words. Since gerunds perform the function of a noun, gerund phrases, just like nouns, can be either the subject or object of the sentence.

Here's an example of a gerund phrase as the subject:

Going to the theater is so much fun. 

If you want to ensure it's a gerund phrase, not a participle phrase (more on that later), replace it with a noun and see if it makes sense. Allow me to demonstrate the following:

Dogs are so much fun.

The sentence still makes sense, confirming that going to the theater is indeed a gerund phrase in the earlier example. Here are some more examples of sentences with gerund phrases:

Running with scissors is a terrible idea.

Swimming in the sea in winter is unthinkable.

Infinitive Phrases

What's an infinitive? It's the root form of the verb plus the word 'to.' Therefore an infinitive phrase is an infinitive + any complements and/or modifiers.

For instance:

We like to eat berries.

'To take' is the infinitive, and 'to eat berries' is the infinitive phrase.

An infinitive phrase can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb. In the above sentence, it functions as a noun. Case in point, you could swap the entire phrase for a noun, for example, 'We like pencils.'

Here's an example of an infinitive phrase that functions as an adjective:

I need a warm coat to wear in the winter.

'To wear in the winter' is the infinitive phrase that functions as an adjective to the noun 'coat.'

Finally, here's an infinitive phrase that functions as an adverb:

I came here to tell you goodbye.

Bare Infinitives

After a modal verb, the 'to' form of an infinitive verb is dropped. It still counts as an infinitive phrase, but it just looks slightly different.

For instance:

I think you should go home now.

She might know the answer.

We could say hi.

Participle Phrase

A participle can look one of two ways. It can have a -ing ending, just like a gerund. That's a present participle. Or, you can have past participles, which end in -ed unless they're irregular.

Participle phrases are made of either a present or past participle, plus some other words. They function as an adjective, so they're technically a type of adjective phrase. Here are some examples of sentences that contain participle phrases:

Surprised by the course of events, Annie headed home.

Excited for its dinner, the dog ran into the kitchen.

Look at the man running on the beach

Appositive Phrase

An appositive noun follows another noun to provide additional information about it. Appositive phrases do the exact same thing.

I bought pizzas for dinner and strawberries, my favorite fruit, for dessert.

Here, the appositive phrase 'my favorite fruit' complements the noun 'strawberries.' Notice that it's surrounded by commas - one before and one after. This is the correct way to frame a nonrestrictive appositive phrase. You can also use dashes or parentheses.

Here are some more examples:

Mr. Smith, a published author, is also the high school's new headteacher.

My favorite character is Sophie (the protagonist's daughter).

Her husband - the CEO of the company - just bought a yacht.  

Concluding Thoughts on Phrases

That concludes this article about phrases. I hope you now feel confident about your knowledge of phrases, how to spot them, and the role they play in a sentence.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • A phrase is a sentence fragment made up of several words.
  • A phrase doesn't have a subject and predicate, therefore, doesn't form a complete sentence.
  • A phrase can't stand alone.
  • There are several different types of phrases.

If you found this article helpful and would like to continue your grammar education, visit our free Grammar Book, where we cover a different topic every week.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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