Caleb S.
Caleb S.

What are Phrases? Definitions, Types, & Examples

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Published on: Jun 13, 2024

Last updated on: Jun 20, 2024

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A phrase is a group of words that expresses a concept and acts as a unit within a sentence or clause. However, a phrase cannot stand on its own, as it lacks a subject and predicate (or verb).

Whether you’re speaking or writing, you’re using phrases all the time. That’s because all complete sentences are composed of little phrases. Phrases add context and detail to your sentences and help you briefly elaborate on what you’re talking about.

For instance, take a look at this sentence: "She walked briskly down the street, carrying a heavy bag."

In this sentence, there are three phrases:

  • "She walked briskly"
  • "down the street"
  • "carrying a heavy bag"

And just like this, we can slice up a sentence and identify a phrase intuitively. So what are the types of phrases and how do we use them? Read on to learn about the definitions, types, and examples of phrases. Let’s get into it! 

Definition of “Phrase”

Let’s see how dictionaries define “phrase.”

  • According to Merriem-Webster, a phrase is:

“A word or group of words forming a syntactic constituent with a single grammatical function”

  • The Cambridge Dictionary define phrase as:

“A group of words that is part of, rather than the whole of, a sentence”

  • According to Collins Dictionary:

“A phrase is a small group of words that forms a unit, either on its own or within a sentence.”

  • Finally, here is how the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines phrase:

“A group of words without a finite verb, especially one that forms part of a sentence.”

However, these are not the only definitions. The word “phrase” is also used in other contexts to mean other things such as common sayings (which we’ll discuss later in this blog). These definitions are closer to what we call “grammatical phrases,” or phrases that serve a grammatical function.

Phrase vs. Clauses

Just like a phrase, a clause is also a part of a sentence. However, the two are clearly different:

A phrase lacks either a subject, predicate, or both. They can't express a complete thought on their own.

A clause, on the other hand, are group of words that contain a subject and a predicate. They can stand as complete sentences (independent clauses) or as part of a larger sentence (dependent clauses). 

Example:

  • On the table
  • Under the tree
  • With great enthusiasm

Example:

  • She danced gracefully.
  • He was tired after work.
  • She sings in the morning,

In other words, clauses express a complete thought or idea, whereas phrases are smaller parts that modify an idea and add detail. Clauses are a bigger category, and can contain phrases within them.

Types of Grammatical Phrases with Examples

The most common role of a phrase is to act as a single grammatical unit, like a noun, adjective, or adverb. We can categorize phrases based on which part of speech they act as in a sentence.

Here are the types of grammatical phrases:

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase is a group of words centered around a noun or pronoun. It can be either a subject, object, or complement in a sentence. They basically provide information about a noun.

For example:

  • The big brown dog chased the cat.
  • The old oak tree stood tall in the center of the park.
  • A cup of hot coffee awaited her on the table.
  • The lazy cat slept peacefully in the sunbeam.

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase consists of a main verb and any auxiliary (helping) verbs that accompany it. Just like a normal verb, it expresses an action or state of being within a sentence.

Example:

  • She is studying for her exam.
  • They have been working on this project for weeks.
  • He will be leaving for vacation next month.
  • The team was practicing late into the night.

Adjective Phrase 

An adjective phrase is a group of words that functions as an adjective. It modifies a specific noun or pronoun by describing its qualities or characteristics.

Examples:

  • She bought a dress made of silk.
  • He found a house with a stunning view of the mountains.
  • She gave him a gift wrapped in colorful paper.
  • The book with the torn cover is on sale.

Adverbial Phrase

As the name suggests, an adverbial phrase is a group of words that play the role of an adverb. It expresses the manner, place, time, frequency, degree, or reason of an action or event.

Examples:

  • They went for a walk in the park.
  • She danced with grace and elegance.
  • They arrived just in time for the meeting.
  • The birds sang from dawn until dusk.

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is based on a preposition and its object. Like adjective and adverbial phrases, it can describe or modify nouns, pronouns, or verbs. Although it can overlap with adjective or adverbial phrases, it is clearly differentiated by a preposition.

For example:

  • The book on the table belongs to me.

Here, "on the table" is the prepositional phrase modifying the noun "book". Check out some more examples:

  • She walked along the beach at sunset.
  • The cat slept under the bed.
  • He traveled through the forest to reach the waterfall.
  • They sat by the fireplace on a cold winter night.

Gerund Phrase 

A gerund phrase consists of a gerund (a verb form ending in -ing) and any modifiers. It acts as a noun in a sentence, serving as a subject or object.

For instance:

  • Swimming in the ocean is her favorite activity.

In this sentence, "Swimming in the ocean" is the gerund phrase functioning as the subject of the sentence. See more examples:

  • Running every morning keeps him fit.
  • Eating healthy food is important for maintaining a balanced diet.
  • Reading books broadens your perspective on life.
  • Singing in the choir brings her joy and fulfillment.

Participle Phrase

A participle phrase is identified by a participle and any modifiers or complements. A participle is a verb (ending in “ed” or “ing”) that acts as an adjective –  a participle phrase fulfills the same role.

See this example:

  • The burning house was extinguished by the firefighters.

In this example, "burning house" is the participle phrase modifying the noun "house". Here are more examples to clarify:

  • The children, laughing happily, played in the park.
  • The flowers watered regularly, bloomed beautifully.
  • The girl, holding her mother's hand, crossed the street.
  • The boy, excited about the upcoming trip, packed his bags eagerly.

Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase consists of an appositive (a noun or noun phrase) and any modifiers. It describes a noun or pronoun and is usually placed next to the noun it describes.

For example:

  • My friend Sarah, a talented artist, painted the mural.

Here, "a talented artist" is the appositive phrase that describes the noun "Sarah". Here are more similar examples:

  • John, the CEO of the company, announced the new initiative.
  • My dog, a playful golden retriever, loves to fetch.
  • My hometown, a quaint village nestled in the mountains, is a popular tourist destination.
  • My sister, an accomplished pianist, performed at the concert.

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase consists of an infinitive (the base form of a verb preceded by "to") and any modifiers or complements. It can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb in a sentence.

For instance:

  • She decided to travel around the world.

In this sentence, "to travel around the world" is the infinitive phrase functioning as the object of the verb "decided".

  • She plans to study abroad next semester.
  • They want to learn how to cook Italian cuisine.
  • He needs to finish his homework before dinner.

How to Identify Grammatical Phrases?

Identifying a phrase is an intuitive thing if you are a fluent speaker and understand what phrases are. Here’s an exercise, try slicing up these sentences into phrases (remember, a phrase is doesn’t convey full meaning on its own):

  • He traveled through the forest to reach the waterfall.
  • The book with the torn cover is on sale.
  • They have been working on this project for weeks.

Here’s what you may have guessed (and you’d be right):

1

He traveled 

through the forest

to reach the waterfall.


2

The book

with the torn cover

is on sale


3

They

have been working

on this project

for weeks.

Didn’t get it right? Don’t worry, remember these tips to help you identify a phrase:

  • When reading a sentence, look for groups of words that work together to convey a single idea without containing a subject and verb combination.
  • Think about the role word or group of words plays within the sentence. Is it modifying a noun, verb, or provides detail about any aspect of the sentence without meaning anything on its own? If yes, you might be looking at a phrase.
  • A sentence may contain a separate noun or verb – it isn’t necessary that every word should be part of a phrase (as the No. 3 sentence of the exercise shows”.)

Tips for Using Grammatical Phrases

The types and definitions of phrases might sound confusing. Yes, these types are not mutually exclusive, and there might be more than one way to divide and use a phrase. However, this shouldn’t disturb or change how you use phrases in your phrases.

Here’s how you can ensure that you’re using phrases correctly:

  • Ask yourself: does it sound right? If the phrases you’re using make your sentences clearer, more descriptive, and more meaningful without fluff, then your usage is ok!
  • Don’t make your sentences too long. If your sentences sound long, convoluted, and vague, you might be using an excessive number of phrases. 
  • Immerse yourself in conversation to pick up the correct usage. Read articles and books, watch movies and series in English. You will pick 
  • Finally, don’t obsess over phrases. If you’re speaking or writing fluently and clearly, chances are you’re already doing it right. It’s not that deep!

Common Phrases

Remember when we mentioned that “phrase” also means things like common sayings? Yes, along with a grammatical role, phrases are also used illustratively as idiomatic expressions. 

These phrases are derived from cultural influences and are used so much that they become a norm in our daily expression. Here are some types of “common phrases” with examples

Sayings

Sayings are short phrases or idioms that have a set form and generally understood meaning. They are commonly used in everyday language and are familiar to native speakers.

Here are some examples:

  • Break a leg
  • Piece of cake
  • Cost an arm and a leg
  • Bite the bullet

 Adages

Adages are similar to proverbs but are more formal and ancient in origin. They are often considered timeless pieces of wisdom passed down through generations. They allude to a general observation or truth, usually through metaphors.

For example:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Rome wasn't built in a day.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • All's fair in love and war.
  • Where there's a will, there's a way.

H3- Proverbs

Proverbs are short, memorable expressions of wisdom or advice that convey a universal truth or insight. They often stem from cultural traditions, literature, or folklore and are widely recognized and used in a community.

  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • You reap what you sow.
  • Better late than never.
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Test Your Understanding – a Types of Phrases Exercise

In this exercise, you have 20 sentences, and each sentence has one bold phrase. Your task is to identify and write down the type of phrase (which is bold). 

Once done, you can find the answers below to verify whether they’re correct!


Sentence

Type of Phrase

1

She found a hidden treasure in the attic.


2

They were singing loudly in the car.


3

The sunset was breathtakingly beautiful.


4

He waited for hours at the bus stop.


5

The keys are on the kitchen counter.


6

Reading books broadens your horizons.


7

The falling leaves covered the ground.


8

My friend, an expert chef, cooked dinner.


9

She wants to travel the world.


10

Running every morning keeps him fit.


11

The howling wind rattled the windows.


12

The cat slept soundly on the windowsill.


13

They walked through the forest to reach the waterfall.


14

Baking cookies is her favorite hobby.


15

The excited children ran to the playground.


16

He's a talented musician from New Orleans.


17

She likes to read mystery novels.


18

The sparkling water shimmered in the sunlight.


19

She enjoys listening to music while studying.


20

The flowers, blooming brightly, filled the garden with color.


To sum up, 

understanding the various types of phrases, both grammatical and idiomatic, can help you master the English language. Whether you’re a writer or a speaker, knowing how to use phrases appropriately can make your language more effective, descriptive, and nuanced.

Wondering whether you’re writing correct phrases in your sentences? Check your grammar with free AI essay writer no sign up!

Stop worrying about trying to be grammatically correct. With our grammar checker tool, you can polish your writing and ensure flawless grammar in no time. Get started today!

Here are the answers to the above exercise: 

(1) Noun Phrase, (2) Verb Phrase, (3) Adjective Phrase, (4) Adverbial Phrase, (5) Prepositional Phrase, (6) Gerund Phrase, (7) Participle Phrase, (8) Appositive Phrase, (9) Infinitive Phrase, (10) Gerund Phrase, (11) Participle Phrase, (12) Adverbial Phrase, (13) Prepositional Phrase, (14) Gerund Phrase, (15) Adjective Phrase, (16) Appositive Phrase, (17) Infinitive Phrase, (18) Participle Phrase, (19) Gerund Phrase, (20) Participle Phrase.

Continue Learning

If you want to learn more about academic writing, grammar, and related concepts, check out these blogs. 

Grammar


Writing


Citation

Dangling Modifiers

Essay Writing

APA format

Homophones

Paraphrasing

MLA format

Articles in Grammar

Thesis Statement

Chicago Style

Analogy

Paragraph

Harvard Style

Parts of Speech

Summary

IEEE Citation


Plagiarism

Oxford Referencing

Caleb S.

WRITTEN BY

Caleb S. (Masters, Mass Literature and Linguistics)

Caleb S. is an accomplished author with over five years of experience and a Master's degree from Oxford University. He excels in various writing forms, including articles, press releases, blog posts, and whitepapers. As a valued author at MyEssayWriter.ai, Caleb assists students and professionals by providing practical tips on research, citation, sentence structure, and style enhancement.

Caleb S. is an accomplished author with over five years of experience and a Master's degree from Oxford University. He excels in various writing forms, including articles, press releases, blog posts, and whitepapers. As a valued author at MyEssayWriter.ai, Caleb assists students and professionals by providing practical tips on research, citation, sentence structure, and style enhancement.

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