Whereas clauses are larger units that usually contain at least a subject and a verb, phrases are smaller parts of the sentence.
Sometimes they are essential to the structure of a clause (e.g., a noun phrase that functions as the subject), and sometimes they just provide some extra information (most prepositional phrases).
As we review the different types of phrases, please note that one phrase can include another. For example, we can categorize swimming in the ocean as a participial phrase (swimming is a present participle), even though it includes a prepositional phrase (in the ocean). At times a phrase can even be interpreted as a clause if it takes on a similar function.
Types of Phrases
A noun phrase is any noun or pronoun along with its modifiers:
The school children
An old and rusted slinky
A verb phrase is any number of verbs working together:
Had been sleeping
May have written
Verb phrases often contain adverbs that change the meaning of the phrase:
Has never lost
May not trespass
Am always looking
As the last example shows, verb phrases may include verbals (looking is a present participle), but a verbal by itself is not a verb.
A prepositional phrase always starts with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun (and its modifiers) that is called the object of the preposition:
Through the wheat field
Object of the preposition: the wheat field
Here are some more examples of prepositional phrases:
During the year
In the summer
There are three types of verbal phrases: participial phrases, gerund phrases, and infinitive phrases. Each is explained below.
Participial phrases start with either a present or past participle. Here are some examples of each.
Phrases with present participles:
Lounging by the pool
Chasing a butterfly
Phrases with past participles:
Struck by lightning
Driven to succeed
A gerund phrase is a present participle (and its modifiers) that acts like a noun. It can take on a variety of jobs in the sentence. Here are a couple of examples:
Practicing helped a lot. (subject)
I love reading. (direct object)
An infinitive phrase is the infinitive and its modifiers:
To walk all that way
To mix peanut butter and jam
The infinitive phrase can also function in various ways:
To give to charity is a noble thing. (subject)
The neighbours have promised to stop playing the drums at night. (direct object)
An appositive phrase is a phrase that renames an earlier noun or pronoun:
My best friend, Nick Palacio, loves scuba diving.
We watched Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
In these examples, the appositive is a noun phrase. But you can use other phrases as appositives too:
My dream, to make it to the NBA, is what keeps me going. (infinitive phrase)
Matthew’s special talent, bouncing on his head on the trampoline, gives him a unique perspective on life. (participial phrase)
Appositives are great for inserting some extra information in a sentence.
Absolute phrases are the trickiest to identify. These phrases are not closely connected to the rest of the sentence; they don’t describe a specific word, but modify the whole sentence. They add extra information and are usually separated by commas (or dashes).
At the heart of an absolute phrase you will find a noun or pronoun and some modifiers.
Very often the modifier is a participle:
The tide coming in, most beachgoers were packing up.
Absolute phrase: The tide coming in.
Here are some more examples:
The semester finished, Karen sold all her textbooks.
Absolute phrase: The semester finished.
The ice finally frozen over, we went skating.
Absolute phrase: The ice finally frozen over.
Another way to form an absolute phrase is to add an adjective to your noun or pronoun:
Her skin sweaty and hot, Tamara looked forward to having a shower.
Absolute phrase: Her skin sweaty and hot.
In many of these examples we could add the word being (Her skin being sweaty and hot), but you can usually do without.
You’ll also notice how close these phrases are to being a clause. All you have to do is add a conjunction and change the participle to a finite verb:
When the ice finally froze over, we all went skating.
Finite verb: froze.
And the final thing to observe is that the absolute phrase can also come at the end of the sentence.