What Is a Phrase? Definition and Examples in Grammar

A phrase is a collection of two or more words that serve as a meaningful unit inside a sentence or clause in English grammar. Typically, a phrase is defined as a grammatical unit that falls between a word and a clause.

A phrase is composed of one or more optional modifiers and a head (or headword), which establishes the grammatical status of the unit. Phrases can include additional phrases.

Noun phrases (like “a nice buddy”), verb phrases (like “drives cautiously”), adjective phrases (like “extremely chilly and gloomy”), adverb phrases (like “very slowly”), and prepositional phrases are examples of common phrase forms (in the first place).

Pronunciation: fraze
Etymology: from the Greek, “explain, tell.”

Adjective: phrasal.

Examples and Observations

Sentences may be broken down into word groupings that make sense when used together. For instance, in the sentence, the lovely unicorn ate a fantastic lunch, the friendly unicorn and delicious food make up one such group. (We all instinctively understand this) The collection of words is known as a phrase.

“The phrase is an adjective phrase if the most significant component of the phrase, i.e., the head, is an adjective; the phrase is a noun phrase if the most important portion of the phrase is a noun; and so on.” [Elly van Gelderen]

Types of Phrases with Examples

  • Noun Phrase
    “Buy a large, eye-catching green leisure vehicle!” The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine by Paul Simon, 1966
  • Verb Phrase
    “Your father could be leaving for a short period.” ― Ellen Griswold, from the 1983 motion picture Vacation
  • Adjective Phrase
    “Speaking the truth is usually the wisest course unless you are a skilled liar.” — Jerome K. Jerome, February 1892, “The Idler”
  • Adverb Phrase
    “Movements founded out of hate soon adopt the traits of the object of their anger.” ― J. S. Habgood, May 4, 1986, “The Observer”
  • Prepositional Phrase
    “I could dance with you all night long. Now that I think about it, I’d like to dance with the cows till you get home.” ― Groucho Marx in 1933’s “Duck Soup.”

“Prepositions cannot function as the only head word of prepositional phrases, unlike the other four forms of phrases. A preposition is still the head word in a prepositional phrase, but for the phrase to be complete, it has to be accompanied by another element or prepositional complement. The prepositional complement will often be a noun phrase.” [Kim Ballard]

An Expanded Definition of Phrase

A prototype phrase is a collection of words that cluster around a central word or “nucleus” to create a cohesive whole. A noun phrase (NP) is one in which the noun at the head of the phrase is a noun (e.g., all those beautiful houses built in the sixties). The phrase is a verb phrase if the head is a verb (VP). The VP, for instance, is italicized, and the verb head is bolded in the following example:

Jill made a few sandwiches for us.

“A term can only be complicated in theory. To put it in another way, the phrase is also used to describe “one-word phrases,” which are non-prototypical utterances that only have a head. As a result, “Jill smokes” is a compound sentence that combines a verb phrase with a noun phrase.”

— Bert Cappelle, Susan Reed, and Renaat Declerck

Phrases, Nesting Phrases, and Clauses

“Clauses are in contrast to phrases, which they do resemble. The primary characteristic of a phrase is that it has all the elements of a potentially independent sentence, namely a verb, a subject, and sometimes additional objects. If a sentence included just these elements, it would be referred to as a clause rather than a phrase. A verb might be present in a phrase without its subject, or it can be the subject of another verb.” J. R. Hurford

Hurford lists two methods via which sentences might enclose other phrases:

  • Using a conjunction to combine two or shorter sentences, such as “and,” “but,” “or.”
  • Inserting a term inside of another phrase.

The following are some examples by Hurford on how to incorporate a short sentence into a longer one:

Ran out from home swiftly to his mother, five basketball players who are exceptionally tall, out from under the kitchen table, and need to be more convincingly established.

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