Phrases – how to understand them

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Phrases – definition

phrases Phrases are part of a sentence which does not contain a finite verb.

redbtn [This feature distinguishes a phrase from a clause, which does have a finite verb.]

redbtn It is a group of words which acts as a noun, adjective, or an adverb.

up the street my father’s dog
to hunt the killer the house with big windows
strawberries and cream having a wonderful time


redbtn Phrases are sequences of meaning and are used in both speech and writing.

redbtn A grammatically complete sentence requires a finite verb. However, in some contexts phrases can convey as much meaning as is required.

redbtn In these cases the verb may not be expressed but will be implied by the speaker and understood by the listener.

redbtn In writing, the phrase would only be punctuated as a sentence in special cases and for special effects.

redbtn NB! Remember – a phrase does not contain a finite verb, but a clause does.

redbtn The term ‘phrase’ is used generally to suggest a saying or a brief statement.

redbtn The most interesting thing regarding phrases is that when uttered in isolation they have a verb which is understood or implied.

redbtn If we say to a child ‘Up those stairs!’ it usually means something like, ‘It’s time you went up those stairs to bed’. In the more complete utterance ‘you went’ is a finite verb.

redbtn Similarly, the question ‘Where are the glasses?’ may be answered by ‘Inside the cabinet’. The semantic implication is ‘The glasses are inside the cabinet’ in which ‘are’ is the finite verb whose subject is ‘the glasses’.

redbtn Many proverbs are expressed as phrases but with the finite verb understood.

redbtn For instance ‘More haste less speed’, suggests that, ‘more haste results in less speed’. However, this addition of the finite verb ‘results’ makes the saying less succinct and epigrammatic.

redbtn A very unscientific but efficient way to test whether an utterance is a sentence or a phrase is to imagine addressing a stranger with the statement. The response to a phrase would be ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

redbtn For example, imagine making any of the following statements to someone. They would not know what you meant.

‘The green book’
‘A lovely surprise’
‘Over there’

redbtn On the other hand, even a stranger would make some sense of the following sentences:

‘That’s the green book I left in the park.’
‘The bus stops over there.’
‘I have a lovely surprise for you.’

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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