Home » Intermediate English Grammar » Phrases


When we talk about grammar, we usually talk about single words, but in reality, most grammar involves groups of words that function as a unit. A phrase is any collection of closely related words that lacks both a subject and a verb. In sentences, phrases serve a variety of functions, acting as nouns, verbs, modifiers, subjects, and objects.

  • A small black dog was sitting on the steps behind the building, looking hungry and tired.

In this sentence, there are several phrases, each made up of many smaller pieces.

  1. noun phrase (a small black dog) acts as the subject. This phrase consists of a noun (dog) and the two adjectives (small, black) that modify the noun. Finally, an article (a) identifies the noun.
  2. Two prepositional phrases (on the steps, behind the building) act as adverbs; they tell where the dog was sitting. Each phrase consists of a preposition (on, behind) and the noun that is the object of the preposition (steps, building). Finally, each noun has an article (the) preceding it.
  3. participial phrase (looking hungry and tired) acts as an adjective; it describes the small black dog. This phrase consists of a participle (looking) and two adjectives (tired, hungry) joined by a coordinating conjunction (and).

As the example above shows, phrases are usually named according to the controlling or most important piece of the phrase: noun phrase, prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and so on.

noun phrase includes a noun or pronoun and anything modifying it. The modifiers can be simple adjectives, participles, relative clauses, or prepositional phrases. Remember that gerunds or infinitives are nouns and can be part of a noun phrase. In these noun phrases, the noun is underlined.

  • Jeff won an incredibly large stuffed teddy bear at the carnival.
  • Swimming in shark-infested waters is a risky form of recreation.
  • Those classified documents lying on the desk could easily be stolen.

prepositional phrase includes a preposition, the noun or pronoun object of the preposition, and any adjectives modifying that object. Short prepositional phrases are often strung together and sometimes form parts of other types of phrases. In these prepositional phrases that follow, the preposition is underlined.

  • Every year, salmon spawn in the Columbia River.
  • I am going to the mall with Terry.
  • Those classified documents lying on the desk could easily be stolen. (This prepositional phrase is part of a larger noun phrase.)

participial phrase is usually introduced by a participle. Participial phrases act as adjectives, so they sometimes form part of a larger noun phrase. In the following participial phrases, the participle is underlined.

  • Running as fast as she could, Miriam tried to catch the bus.
  • The ancient castle, weathered by time, had a romantic look.
  • Those classified documents lying on the desk could easily be stolen. (This participial phrase is part of a larger noun phrase.)

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