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Grammar Snack: Phrases & Clauses


Whenever you're reading or writing something complex or detailed, it helps to know the difference between a phrase and a clause and the many ways they can show up in sentences. Even the most specifically detailed and intricately constructed sentences follow these basic rules, and you can both understand and create them if you know what's what.



Phrases:


A phrase is a collection of words (two or more of them) that has meaning:

 

big brown bear

 

A collection of words with no meaning or unclear meaning is just a collection of words:

 

bear brown big

 


Clauses:


A clause is also a collection of words which has meaning, but it also has both a subject and a predicate.


In the most simple clause, you have a subject made of one noun, and a predicate made of one verb:

 

I think.


The noun "I" is the subject. The verb "think" is the predicate.

 

The above clause makes a sentence because it is a complete thought. A sentence must have at least one clause, but it can have more:

 

I think, therefore I am.


The noun "I" is the subject, the verb "am" is the predicate, and the adverb "therefore" is helping with the transition between the two.

 

Writing clauses and sentences using single nouns and single verbs makes for vague ideas, great for philosophers to inspire deep contemplation but terrible for you to share information, feelings, or concepts. You have more to say to the world — this is where phrases come in!



Types of Phrases to Breathe Life into Your Clauses:


Phrases, just like people, come in all shapes and sizes and have different jobs to do in a sentence. Keep in mind that phrases are often nested inside other phrases, and many phrases may fall into more than one category.


The most important thing to notice is how the phrase is being used to create meaning in the sentence. Remember your four basic parts of speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb. If the phrase tells you about a person, place thing, or idea, it's a noun phrase. If it tells you about an action, it's a verb phrase. If it describes a noun, it's an adjective phrase. If it describes something other than a noun, it's an adverb phrase.

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is a noun phrase because it names a noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is also a noun phrase because it names and modifies (or describes) that noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is an adjective phrase because it modifies a noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is an adjective phrase even though it has no adjectives because it modifies a noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is an adverb phrase because it modifies something other than a noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is also an adverb phrase even though it has no adverbs because it modifies something other than a noun

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is a verb phrase because it names an action in the past, present, or future

 

Burrowing blindly beneath the barrow, the bunny was beleaguered by the big brown bear bellowing belligerently as it barreled by.


is also a verb phrase because it names a state of being in the past, present, or future

 

The above examples show the most basic kinds of phrases. If you feel well equipped with the above descriptions, read no further. If you're reading or writing something especially formal, poetic, or complex, the following are some nitty gritty grammar geek phrase names for special kinds of noun, adjective, and adverb phrases. Learning these will help you unlock some of the trickier sentence structures, but aren't needed for most everyday writing or reading.

 

I love long walks on the beach.


is a prepositional phrase because it begins with a preposition

 

I love to take long walks on the beach.


is an infinitive phrase because it names an action or state of being without a specific time in the past, present, or future; treat it like a noun phrase


infinitives are the base "to ______" form of a verb with no specific time (like infinity!)

 

I love taking long walks on the beach.


is a gerund phrase because it names and describes a gerund; treat it like a noun phrase


gerunds are verbs that have been turned into nouns by using their "ing" ending and show up without a helping verb

 

Breathing in the salty sea air, I notice how much I love long walks on the beach.


is a participle phrase because it names and describes a present participle; treat it like an adjective phrase


present participles are verbs that have been turned into nouns by using their "ing" ending and show up without a helping verb

 

Bathed in sunlight, I notice how much I love long walks on the beach.


is a participle phrase because it names and describes a past participle; treat it like an adjective phrase


past participles are verbs that have been turned into nouns by using their past tense form

 

Grammarians use tree diagrams like this one to break down even simple sentences into all of their parts of speech and nested phrases. If this seems intimidating, you might be surprised to learn that your brain naturally keeps track of all this information — it just isn't sharing with you!

There's more going on in sentences than your conscious brain realizes. But if you're fluent in English, your brain intuitively knows all of this already. You can move that knowledge from intuition to consciousness with practice. Now that you've got the basic building blocks and the specialty parts, you can build and deconstruct any sentence.


What's the most complex sentence you've created? What's the most complex sentence you've figured out? Post a comment below and let me know!

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