Grammar What Is a Phrase? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

What Is a Phrase?

Some writers and speakers of American English may have a basic understanding of what a phrase is but may not always be able to define one or identify it in a sentence. In today’s post, we’ll further explore and explain what a phrase is.

How Do You Define a Phrase?

A phrase is a sequence of two or more words that join to serve a grammatical function. Unlike a clause, a phrase doesn’t have a subject and a verb together, meaning it can’t form a complete thought or sentence on its own.

Examples of Phrases in Sentences

The following examples will illustrate how phrases might appear and be used within complete sentences.

The confused cat was looking for its toy.

It was a dark and rainy day.

My workout left me sore to the bone.

You’ll notice that these phrases all involve groups of words working together, but none of them could stand independently as a sentence.

In the first example, the confused cat is a noun phrase serving as the sentence subject. In the second sentence, a dark and rainy day is a noun phrase functioning as a predicate nominative (it renames the subject). In the third sentence, sore to the bone is an adjective phrase modifying me.

Other examples you might see are gerund phrases serving as subject or object nouns:

Running in the morning can be energizing. (noun phrase, subject)

When nights are starry and clear, Jill often feels like dancing in the moonlight. (noun phrase, object)

Eating ice cream with friends can be fun on a mild summer day. (noun phrase, subject)

In these sentences, we have more sets of words working together (phrases) to express a thought, but they do not have the components of subject and verb to form their own clause.

English is replete with other types of phrases, such as prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases. For this discussion, what matters most is understanding how a phrase differs from a clause.

Other Uses of the Word Phrase

Now that we have covered the grammatical basics of phrases, note that the word itself can be used in a couple of different ways as well.

For example, you might hear someone refer to “an old phrase” when what they really mean is “a saying.” Writers and speakers may also sometimes talk about phrasing, which concerns how a writer uses tone of voice and word choice to express something.

If you still have a question about phrases, simply write to us in the comments section below.

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