Phrases – how to understand them
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Phrases – definition
Phrases are part of a sentence which does not contain a finite verb.
[This feature distinguishes a phrase from a clause, which does have a finite verb.]
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
Phrases are sequences of meaning and are used in both speech and writing.
A grammatically complete sentence requires a finite verb. However, in some contexts phrases can convey as much meaning as is required.
In these cases the verb may not be expressed but will be implied by the speaker and understood by the listener.
In writing, the phrase would only be punctuated as a sentence in special cases and for special effects.
NB! Remember – a phrase does not contain a finite verb, but a clause does.
The term ‘phrase’ is used generally to suggest a saying or a brief statement.
The most interesting thing regarding phrases is that when uttered in isolation they have a verb which is understood or implied.
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.
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’.
Many proverbs are expressed as phrases but with the finite verb understood.
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.
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?’
For example, imagine making any of the following statements to someone. They would not know what you meant.
‘The green book’
‘A lovely surprise’
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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