What is a Phrase?

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  • 0:01 What Is a Phrase?
  • 1:43 Noun Phrase
  • 5:02 Absolute Phrase
  • 7:05 Verb Phrases
  • 8:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define a phrase. We will then discuss the different kinds of phrases, look at examples of each, and then discuss how to use them correctly in writing.

What Is a Phrase?

How does writing start? When you sit down to write, what is the first idea you put on paper? We begin writing with something very simple: a word. Our writing grows as words become phrases, phrases become clauses, clauses become sentences, and sentences become complex and compound. By knowing how a sentence begins, you are able to create more complicated sentences, combine ideas more smoothly, and know how to punctuate your writing to convey a clear meaning.

It is obvious that we all know what a word is. However, we may not be as familiar with a phrase. A phrase is two or more words that are related to each other. Unlike clauses and sentences, phrases are never complete thoughts because a phrase does not contain a subject and a verb.

Let's look at an example to explain the way we may write a sentence. First, we would start with the word 'dog.' This word becomes the phrase 'a small, black dog' when we add modifiers to it. Notice that this is an incomplete thought because it is only a subject and does not contain a verb. Next, the phrase becomes a clause, a group of words related to each other that contain a subject and verb. We can write, 'When the small, black dog started to jump.' The clause is still incomplete because it does not contain a complete thought. To fix this, we would want to finish the thought and create a sentence: 'When the small, black dog started to jump, we quickly ran away.'

Now that we have defined a phrase and looked at its role in creating a sentence, let's look at the different kinds of phrases we can use in our writing.

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase is a phrase that includes a person, place, or thing and the modifiers that describe it. It is important to recognize the noun phrase because it will distinguish the noun. In writing, this will help you add more details and create a stronger, more vivid picture for your audience. For instance, instead of writing, 'I saw them,' you could write, 'I saw the young, joyful children.'

You can recognize the noun phrase by finding the subject and identifying the words that describe it. These words may be placed before or after the noun. For example, in our earlier example our noun phrase was 'a small, black dog.' 'Dog' is our initial noun, but the entire description is the noun phrase. It is important to remember that there are many different ways to describe a noun, so there are many different kinds of noun phrases.

Let's first look at the noun phrases that contain modifiers before the nouns. First, you may just have the articles 'a,' 'an,' and 'the' before word. For example, 'the rabbit' or 'an ant.' This would be recognized as a noun phrase. Second, a possessive noun or pronoun before a noun, such as 'June's rabbit' or 'her rabbit,' will complete the noun phrase. Finally, participles, a verb being used as an adjective would create a noun phrase. For example, 'the jumping rabbit' or 'the marching ant.'

There are also modifiers that can be placed after the noun. First, you can use an adjective clause, which is a clause that contains a subject and verb that functions as an adjective. For example, 'the girl that was late for class' contains the noun 'girl' and the modifier 'that was late for class.' This clause distinguishes what girl in the sentence. Next, a noun phrase can contain a noun and preposition phrase, such as 'the child in the car.' Finally, a noun phrase could end with a participle phrase, a verb ending in -ing or-ed that serves as an adjective. For example, in the noun phrase 'the boy asking for a cookie,' 'the boy' is the noun and 'asking for a cookie' is the participle phrase.

As a last step, there are a few different types of noun phrases. An appositive noun phrase renames the noun or subject of the sentence. Since it renames the noun, we do not consider it to be modifying the noun, which makes it a noun phrase. For example, 'Katie, my best friend, was late to school.' Or 'Bob, the loyal dog, passed away last night.'

A gerund phrase is a noun phrase that begins with a gerund. A gerund is a verb that functions as a noun. For example, 'Traveling can be exhausting.' 'Travel,' which is normally a verb, is being used as noun in the sentence. Or for another example: 'I love baking cookies.' In this sentence, 'baking cookies' is our noun phrase, which starts with the gerund 'baking.'

An infinitive phrase is a noun phrase that begins with an infinitive. An infinitive is usually the word to before a verb. For example, 'to sleep' or 'to read.' An infinitive noun phrase could be 'I love to sleep all day,' or 'I prefer to read alone.'

Absolute Phrase

Now that you have been briefly introduced to participle phrase in the previous section, let's expand on this term a bit. An absolute phrase contains the noun, a participle, and modifiers. Remember that no phrases contain verbs. As we know, a noun is the person, place, or thing in the sentence, a participle is a verb being used as an adjective, and the modifiers are the words or phrases that describe the noun. Not all absolute phrases will need to include modifiers; some will just have the noun and a participle.

An absolute phrase modifies the entire sentence, not just a single element. This means it is not linked to a single word or idea; rather it describes the clause from which it is separated. Absolute phrases are set off from the rest of the sentence with a single comma or a set of commas.

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