Columns > Published on January 29th, 2013

Phraseology: Groups of Words with a Lot of Jobs

If you read my articles fairly often, you've probably heard me go on and on about sentences and clauses, but noticed I’ve dodged the topic of phrases…until now.

Let’s Review

Both clauses and phrases are made up of groups of words, but unlike clauses, phrases do not need to have a subject (the person or thing doing the action) and a predicate (the verb and object). Because they lack those elements, phrases must always appear as part of another sentence that includes clauses. You can think of phrases as just another way to section out a sentence. A sentence is made up of clauses which are made up of phrases which are made up of words. (If you want to know more about clauses, read Clause I Said So: a Refresher Course on Sentence Types.)

There are several types of phrases, and some of them seem to have different names depending on their function in a sentence. You probably use them without really knowing how they work, so we will go over each type. Like clauses, phrases can stand in for a part of speech like a noun, adverb or adjective, depending on their position in the sentence and what parts of speech (nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, etc.) surround them. In this way, phrases are one of the most mutable pieces of English Grammar. Stay with me as I go through each type. It’s not as straightforward as it would seem.

Prepositional Phrases

As you might guess from the name, a prepositional phrase contains a preposition. Prepositions are words that talk about the relationship between two things. Examples of prepositions are in, on, under, over, beneath, with, without, out, of, from, to, toward, before, after, etc. A prepositional phrase must also contain an object of the preposition. This can be a noun (person/place/thing), a pronoun (he/she/it) or a group of words that are functioning as a noun like underwear bandits or that place with the thing.

Here are a few more examples of a prepositional phrases:




love (noun)

you (pronoun)

your sweet, sweet lovin’ (groups of words functioning as noun)


the table (noun)

it (pronoun)

where the cat likes to sit (words working as a noun)


jail (noun)

them (pronoun)

this crazy world (you get the idea.)

Prepositional phrases usually function either as an adjective or as an adverb in a sentence.

Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase, as you might have guessed, modifies a noun, just like a regular ol’ adjective. For example:

Any day without your sweet, sweet lovin’ is a very sad day.

The preposition without starts the prepositional adjective phrase without your sweet, sweet lovin’, and the whole phrase modifies the noun day.

Adverb Phrase

An adverb phrase, yep, modifies a verb, just like an adverb. For example:

If you can’t find it, look under where the cat likes to sit.

The preposition under starts the prepositional adverb phrase under where the cat likes to sit, and the whole phrase modifies the verb look.

Verbal Phrases

Verbals are words made from verbs but which don’t actually act as verbs in a sentence. There are three types of verbals—gerunds, participles, and infinitives.

  • Gerunds are verb forms with an –ing ending like running and texting that function as nouns in a sentence, such as:
    • Running is tiring.  (Used as a noun and as the subject for the verb is.)
    • Texting should not be performed while driving. (Used as a noun and as the subject for the verb should.)
  • Participles (a.k.a past participles) are verb forms with either an –ing ending or an –ed/-en/-n/-d/-pt  ending that function as adjectives in a sentence, such as:
    • The house was well-kept. (Modifies the noun house.)
    • Running water is a luxury in some places. (Modifies the noun water.)
    • The Goonies looked for hidden treasure. (Modifies the noun treasure.)
    • Bored teenagers often get into trouble. (Modifies the noun teenagers.)

Note: There might be other past participle endings depending on the verb. To find out the past participle form of a particular verb, you may have to look it up.

  • Infinitives are verb forms in the default mode with the word to in front of them that function either as nouns, adverbs, or adjective, such as:
    • To care is to show weakness.  (Used as a noun and as the subject for the noun is.)
    • Cheetahs are designed to run. (Used as an adverb to modify the verb are designed.)
    • I must control the urge to drink. (Used as an adjective to modify the noun urge.)

Gerund Phrases

Gerund phrases are groups of words that include an –ing verbal that function together as a noun. For example:

Getting up in the morning is hard to do.

Getting is the gerund, and getting up in the morning is the phrase that functions as a noun AND as the subject of the sentence which is doing the action of the verb is. (Are you staying with me?)

Participial Phrases

Participial phrases are groups of words that include an –ing/-en/-n/-ed/-d/-pt/-nt etc. verbal that function together as an adjective. For example:

Some graduates wore tassels earned by good grades.

Earned is the participle, and earned by good grades is a phrase that functions as an adjective modifying the noun tassels.

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitive phrases are groups of words that include a verb in the to-something mode that function together as either a noun, an adverb, or an adjective. For example:

To read Shakespeare is to suffer.

To read is the infinitive, and to read Shakespeare is a phrase that functions as a noun and as the subject of the sentence which is performing the verb is.

The sales people train to make you feel good about your purchase.

To make is the infinitive, and to make you feel good about your purchase is a phrase that functions as an adverb that is modifying the verb train.

The man couldn’t control his tendency to hiccup when he drank soda.

To hiccup is the infinitive, and to hiccup when he drank soda is a phrase that functions as an adjective that is modifying the noun tendency.

Absolute Phrases

An absolute phrase is made up of a noun (or pronoun) and a participle. It also contains any modifiers or objects. For example:

  • Hands waving frantically (hands=noun, waving=participle, frantically=adverb modifier)
  • Dishes placed in the sink (dishes=noun/direct object, placed=participle, sink=indirect object, in the=modifiers)

Absolute phrases are set off by commas (as nonessential or parenthetical elements) and always modify the rest of the sentence instead of just modifying a word. For example:

  • Hands waving frantically, Sarah caught the attention of the handsome celebrity as he walked by.
  • Dishes placed in the sink, he then wiped the counter.

Appositive Phrases

An appositive phrase is a group of words that function as a noun that rename (or define) another noun in a sentence. These are also set off by commas as nonessential elements in a sentence. For example:

Polyester, a synthetic fabric, is used to make most outerwear these days.

A synthetic fabric is a phrase that functions as a (and contains a) noun—fabric. It defines the noun of the main part of the sentence—polyester. The whole phrase is set off by commas because it is not necessary to the sentence; it can function grammatically and be understood just fine without the clause.

Appositive phrases often use words like that, which, for example, in other words, such as, those, these, aforementioned, otherwise known as, etc. For  example:

  • Legos, those interlocking plastic blocks, were always the most popular gift at Christmas.
  •  The wrinkly old lady over there, otherwise known as ‘The Red Madame’, was the last person to operate a brothel in this town.

Got it?

We tend to know how to use these types of phrases instinctively, but it’s good to understand the mechanics when you need to fix a sentence that just doesn’t sound right, or when you want to liven up a particularly dull sentence. Sometimes, too, phrases can add unnecessary complexity. Appositive phrases, for example, may not be necessary unless you are sure your reader needs the extra definition. As you may have noticed as you read through this article, phrases have many jobs, and they sometimes perform more than one duty at a time. This makes them a dynamic implement in our writing toolbox.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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