Phrases and Clauses
These are the three central grammatical structures which make up all sentences.
A phrase consists of one or
more words and is a part of a
Whilst technically a phrase can be a single word,
it's easier to think of multi-word phrases as being
an 'extended word'. We might have about half a million individual
words in our language but we still don't have enough to cover every
eventuality. A phrase is our way out: it's a word with extra
identifying or 'modifying' words added to it, e.g.
'the hissing and spitting black cat'.
A phrase (one or more words) is the smallest group of words that
can occupy a grammatical 'slot' within a sentence.
It will always have a
coherent and unified meaning (this is because
all phrases are single words or built around a single word. This is
the so-called head of the phrase, its
remaining words within a phrase are always grammatically linked to the head word
and function to
or add extra information to
the head word.
A phrase, if it is made up from more
than one word, can
always be substituted by a single word (which will
never be quite as full or clear in meaning, but can be a
can never be sufficient to create a sentence or
clause on its own (except in speech when almost anything
goes within certain informal contexts).
Here is a phrase:
Can you tell that
the meaning this phrase creates is coherent and unified
- and yet that it is insufficient in itself to
complete grammatical sentence?
Can you also see why its head word is
creature and that the three remaining words:
the, unusually and
are acting to modify the head word and so
refine its meaning?
Phrases are named according
to the grammatical function they perform within their sentence. Thus, the above phrase, being built around a
its head word, is called a
Being able to identify the number of separate
grammatical units or structures that exist within a sentence is a central
skill that you will pick up as you learn more about grammar. It's something
that comes with knowledge and practice but you might be surprised how easy
it can be. Can you work out how many
separate grammatical units
there are in the following - rather wordy! - sentence?
Down by the river as the clock struck one, in a frenzy and with a
loud scream, he grabbed the intruder by the
scruff of the neck.
seven? If so, well done. Six of them
are phrases and there is a seventh different grammatical structure called a
clause is shown in grey below (technically it's also
composed of phrases, in this case three: he
the intruder - this is covered later under
Down by the river
as the clock struck one,
in a frenzy
loud scream, he grabbed the intruder by the scruff
of the neck.
The words in many of these phrases indicate such
things as position in time and space, or manner. These are called
'down', 'as', 'in', 'with', 'by' and 'of'. These are the head words of
prepositional phrases. You'll
read more about these later.
Clauses consist of two or more phrases and,
like phrases, form coherent units of meaning.
A clause tells about action or
state (i.e. what a thing is doing or being, e.g. 'He grabbed a brick'; 'She felt
Typically, a clause is composed of a noun
phrase (acting as subject) and a
acted upon by the subject, it fills the grammatical
is a term sometimes used to describe all of the clause apart from the subject,
i.e., it tells what the
subject is doing (and to what).
In the above example, the full
grammatical subject is, 'Down by the river as the clock struck
one, in a
frenzy and with a loud scream, he...' and the predicate is,
therefore, '...grabbed the intruder by the scruff of the neck.'
The structure of any clause, therefore,
is subject +
an awful lot of grammar to digest for one web page! Fear not - it won't happen again.
Time for a breather, then maybe a quick re-read through to make sure it's