PHRASES

Table of Contents


Types of phrases

  • noun phrases
  • adjective phrases
  • infinitive phrase
  • participle phrases
  • adverbial clauses and phrases
  • adverbial phrases

Noun Phrases

A noun phrase is a group of two or more words headed by a noun that includes modifiers. A noun phrase plays the role of a noun. In a noun phrase, the modifiers can come before or after the noun.

  • (Singing in the bath) relaxes me : the noun phrase is the subject of the verb
  • I know (the back streets). : the noun phrase is the direct object of the verb
  • She was (the devil in disguise) : the noun phrase is a subject complement following the linking verb "was."

We can test this because we know that a noun can be replaced by a pronoun - It relaxes me. - I know them. - She was him.

Definition of "Phrase"

A phrase has at least two words and functions as one part of speech.

  • (This man) has (a nice smile), but he's got (iron teeth). : "This man" is the subject of the verb "has." The phrase "a nice smile" is the direct object of "has." The noun phrase "iron teeth" is the direct object of the verb "got.

  • I never learned from (a man who agreed with me).: The noun phrase "a man who agreed with me" is the object of the preposition "from." tested : I never learned from (him).

  • Every man of courage is a man of his word.: "Every man of courage" is the subject of the verb "is." The noun phrase "a man of his word" is a subject complement following the linking verb "is." Here's the "pronoun test": (He) is (one).

It's not unusual for nouns and noun phrases to be embedded within noun phrases. Remember that a noun with any sort of modifier (including just a number or an article) is a noun phrase.

  • The best defense (against (the atom bomb)) is not to be there when it goes off. : In this example, there is a noun phrase within a noun phrase. The noun phrase "the atom bomb" is the object of the preposition "against." The prepositional phrase "against the atom bomb" modifies "defense."

  • I don't have (a bank account), because I don't know (my mother's maiden name.) : tested : I don't have it, because I don't know it. both noun phrases are direct objects.

  • (The best car safety device) is (a rear-view mirror (with a cop in it)). the first noun phrase is the subject, and the second is a subject complement.

  • (Only two things are infinite), (the universe) and (human stupidity), and I'm not sure about (the former).

noun phrases can be headed by pronouns as well as nouns, and they can be quite long.

  • Anybody ((who wants the presidency) so much that (he'll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it) ) is not to be trusted with the office. : "anybody" is a pronoun. The rest of the noun phrase is an adjective clause modifying the head "noun." Tested : He is not to be trusted with the office.

When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, don't let the modifiers divert your eye from the head noun as it must govern the verb.

An adjective phrase

An adjective phrase is a group of words headed by an adjective that modifies a noun.

  • She had (extremely menacing) eyes.
  • She had (extremely blue) eyes.
  • She wore (very expensive) shoes.
  • Sarah was (hostile towards me). This adjective phrase modifies the noun "Sarah." The adjective "hostile" heads the adjective phrase.

Like a normal adjective, an adjective phrase can be used before the noun it's modifying (as in the first two examples) or afterwards (as here)

  • (An overly [sensitive]) heart is (an unhappy possession on this shaky earth).: This adjective phrase modifies the noun "heart."

  • I'm (a fairly intelligent person), but I don't think my grades reflected that.: This adjective phrase modifies the noun "person."

  • People are (so sick of these Twitter tirades). They want to be (proud of their leaders).: The first adjective phrase modifies the noun "people." The second modifies the pronoun "they." Obviously, adjectives can modify pronouns too.

  • There is always someone better than you and more talented than you.: The adjective phrases modify the pronoun "someone."

In an adjective phrase, the head adjective can be at the start, the middle or the end of the phrase.:

  • I am sad about the result. (start)
  • I am awfully sad about the result. (middle)
  • I am very sad. (end)

The other words inside the adjective phrase are known as the dependents of the head adjective. - They are typically adverbs ("awfully" and "very") or prepositional phrases ("about the result").

Attributive Adjective.

An attributive adjective typically sits before the noun it is modifying. - The beautifully carved frames are priceless.

Predicative Adjective.

A predicative adjective typically sits after the noun it is modifying. - The frames are beautifully carved and priceless.

an adjective that appears after its noun can also be attributive. - The frames (beautifully carved by monks) are priceless.

Even though most attributive adjectives sit before their nouns, the position of an adjective does not determine whether it is attributive or predicative.

An attributive adjective sits inside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies, and a predicative adjective sits outside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies.

Typically, a predicative adjective is linked its noun with a linking verb (e.g., "to be," "to look," "to smell," "to taste").

  • The dog (covered in mud) looks (pleased with himself).

The first adjective phrase, even though it's positioned after its noun ("The dog") is attributive because it appears inside the noun phrase "The dog covered in mud."

The second is predicative because it appears outside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies. Note how it is linked to its noun with a linking verb ("looks").

Adjective Clause. Like all clauses, an adjective clause includes a subject and a verb.

  • The bread (you bought yesterday) has gone mouldy. (The clause "you bought yesterday" is a multiword adjective describing "The bread." It has a subject ("you") and a verb ("bought"). It is an adjective clause.

Adjectival Phrase. The term "adjectival phrase" is often used interchangeably with "adjective phrase,"It is multiword adjectives that are not headed by an adjective.

  • My uncle dated the girl (with the tattoos). The phrase "with the tattoos" is a multiword adjective describing "The girl," but it's not headed by an adjective. Headed by the preposition "with," this is a prepositional phrase. It is best classified as an "adjectival phrase" as opposed to an "adjective phrase."

Don't use a hyphen with an adverb ending "-ly." "professionally qualified editor" or "professionally-qualified editor? don't use a hyphen.

However, if your adverb is one like "well," "fast," "best," or "better" (i.e., one that could feasibly be mistaken as an adjective), then use a hyphen to eliminate any ambiguity. She has beautifully-formed feet. She has well-formed feet.

There is ambiguity here: Alliteration creates better flowing sentences.(Are the sentences better or do the sentences flow better?) Alliteration creates better-flowing sentences. (With the hyphen, it is now clear)

  • Janet has started eating more nutritious food. (Is Janet eating more food or the same amount of food?) Janet has started eating more-nutritious food.(It is now clear)

Join the adverb "well" to any adjective it's modifying with a hyphen. He's a well-meaning chap.

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase is the infinitive form of a verb plus any complements and modifiers.

The complement of an infinitive verb will often be its direct object, and the modifier will often be an adverb.

  • He likes [(to knead) the dough (slowly)].: The infinitive verb is "to knead." The complement is its direct object ("the dough"). The modifier is the adverb ("slowly"). They all make up the infinitive phrase.

  • He helped [(to build) the roof].

  • The officer returned [(to help) the inspectors].
  • Let me show you the best way [(to fit) a door (quickly)].
  • She tells you [(to dance) (like no one is watching)].

The Function of Infinitive Phrases

An infinitive phrase can play the role of a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.

Infinitive Phrases Used As Nouns Like all nouns, an infinitive phrase can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence.

Infinitive phrases as subjects (To have a big dream) requires the same effort as having a small dream. Dream big! The infinitive phrase is the subject of "requires."

(To invent an airplane) is nothing. (To build one) is something, but (to fly) is everything. This quotation has three infinitive phrases functioning as nouns. They are all the subjects of "is."

Infinitive phrases as objects He helped (to build the roof). The infinitive phrase is the direct object of "helped.")

Nobody wants (to hear long speeches). The infinitive phrase is the direct object of "wants."

Infinitive phrases as complements The only solution was (to lower the standards). The infinitive phrase is a subject complement. It completes the linking verb "was."

Our aim is (to help the clients help themselves), not to tell them what to think. The infinitive phrase is a subject complement. It completes the linking verb "is.")

Infinitive Phrases Used As Adjectives When an infinitive phrase functions an adjective, it describes a noun or a pronoun.

Let him show you the best way (to paint the door). The infinitive phrase describes the noun "way."

I love crime books. I need one (to read on holiday). The infinitive phrase describes the pronoun "one.")

The first step in forgiveness is the willingness (to forgive those who have wronged us). (The infinitive phrase describes the noun "willingness.")

Infinitive Phrases Used As Adverbs Most infinitive phrases that function as adverbs tell us why the action occurred. Most infinitive phrases that function has adverbs could start with "in order to" (as opposed to just "to.")

The officer returned (to help the inspectors) The infinitive phrase modifies the verb "returned." It tells us why.)

He opened the box (to reveal a huge bullfrog). The infinitive phrase modifies the verb "opened." It tells us why.)

God loves (to help him who strives (to help himself)). The infinitive phrase "to help him who strives to help himself" is functioning as a noun (i.e., it is the direct object of "loves"). That infinitive phrase contains the infinitive phrase "to help himself," which is functioning as an adverb modifying "strives.")

Infinitive Phrases with Bare Infinitives (When Not Preceded by "To")

Most infinitives are preceded by "to," but after certain verbs, the "to" is dropped. This happens when an infinitive follows "can," "could," "may," "might," "must," "shall," "should," "will," or "would" (i.e., a modal auxiliary verb).

He should ([go] home immediately). They might ([finish] the project by Wednesday).

Bare infinitives also follow other verbs. The main ones are "feel," "hear," "help," "let," "make," "see," and "watch." This time, there is a direct object involved.

Dawn helped her friend (bake his mother a cake). The "special" verb is "helped." The direct object is "her friend." In the infinitive phrase, the bare infinitive is "bake." Its direct object is "a cake." This time there is an indirect object ("his mother") in the infinitive phrase too.

I watched them ([sweep] the road [as fast as they could]). The "special" verb is "watched." The direct object is "them." In the infinitive phrase, the bare infinitive is "sweep." Its direct object is "the road." The phrase "as fast as they could" is an adverbial clause.

You can usually save two words by deleting "in order" in a phrase that starts "in order to." you can usually replace "in order to" with just "to" without any loss of meaning. You need a stubborn belief in an idea in order to see it realised. In order To be a diplomat, one must speak a number of languages, including doubletalk.

Bear in mind though that using "in order to" has an advantage: it makes it clear that the text that follows is the reason for performing the action. (It's like using "so as to.")

Split infinitives are okay.

It is not unusual for an infinitive phrase to feature a split infinitive. (A split infinitive occurs when a writer splits the full infinitive with an adverb, e.g., "to really know," "to better understand," "to secretly watch".)

Using a split infinitive is often the most succinct and natural-sounding way to write. Some people regard it as non-standard English or even a grammar mistake. Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable.

Have a quick go at rewording your sentence to avoid the split infinitive, but if your new sentence doesn't read as well (and it probably won't), just go with the split infinitive.

I need ([to accurately present] the data). I need to present the data accurately. Both of these are okay, but the second version (the reworded version) is safer.

I need to more than triple my income. I need more than to triple my income. (sounds awkward) (Avoiding the split infinitive is too difficult with this example. Go with the top one.) If the reworded version reads worse than the split infinitive, revert to the split infinitive. If the reworded version reads equally as well as the split infinitive, avoid the split infinitive.

Participle Phrase

A participle phrase is an adjective phrase headed by a participle. (Remember that participle phrases function as adjectives.)

Peering over the top of his glasses, her tutor shook his head.: (The participle phrase describes "her tutor.")

Cracked from top to bottom, the mirror was now ruined.: (The participle phrase describes "the mirror.")

Look at the panther climbing the tree.: (The participle phrase describes "the panther.")

Sebastian reached across for the pipe, signalling his agreement with the chief's proposal. (The participle phrase describes "Sebastian.")

A Participle Phrase Can Start with a Past Participle or a Present Participle

A participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective. There are two types of participles:

Present Participles (ending "-ing"). The rising tide

Past Participles (usually ending "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n"). The risen cake

The Verb |The Present Participle | The Past Participle|Example ------------------------------------- | -----------------------|--------------------- To rise|the rising sun|the risen sun|Rising out of the sea in front of us, the sun started to warm our faces. To print|the printing document|the printed document|Printed on the very first press, the document was extremely valuable. To break|the breaking news|the broken news|Broken by a government whistle-blower, the news is all over the media.

Perfect Participles

Also, keep an eye out for participle phrases headed by "perfect participles." Perfect participles are formed like this: "Having" + [past participle] Having seen Having taken Having read

The perfect participle is just a commonly used structure that features a present participle ("having") and a past participle.

Having read your book, I now understand your position. Having signed the document, Jason felt the weight of responsibility lift from his shoulders.

Participle phrases might seem complicated, but it is worth learning about them because they can be used to create a highly efficient sentence structure as well as being linked to some common writing errors.

Use a participle phrase to say two or more things about your subject tidily. A fronted participle phrase can be used to create a sentence structure that lets you to say two or more things about a subject efficiently.

(Communicating well upwards, downwards and laterally), John has managed expectations across the program and ensured that all projects remain oriented towards the program objective. (The participle-phrase-upfront structure has allowed three observations about John to be shoehorned into one sentence.)

(Having displayed a cooperative spirit from the outset), John has become a role model for those seeking to share research ideas and techniques. (Here, it has allowed two observations about John to be recorded in a chronologically tidy way.)

Don't write every sentence in this style, but the odd one will give your text variety and help you to cram more information into fewer sentences.

Punctuate your participle phrases correctly. - When a participle phrase is at the front of a sentence, offset it with a comma and put the noun being modified immediately after the comma.

Removing his glasses, the professor shook his head with disappointment.

When a participle phrase follows the noun it's modifying, don't use a comma. Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.

However, if the participle phrase is nonessential (i.e., you could delete it or put it in brackets), then offset with a comma (or two commas if it's mid-sentence). (You could also use dashes or brackets.) The yellow Ferrari, unregistered in the UK and probably stolen in France, was used as the get-away car.

When a participle phrase is at the end of your sentence and not immediately after its noun, offset it with a comma to help show that it's not modifying whatever is to its left. The boys loved their boxing gloves, wearing them even to bed.

Avoid dangling modifiers, especially when using fronted participle phrases. Dangling modifiers are most commonly seen in sentences starting with participle phrases. (A dangling modifier is an error caused by failing to use the word that the modifier is meant to be modifying.)

Having taken the antimalarial tablets religiously, the malaria diagnosis came as a shock. (The participle phrase headed by a perfect participle is meant to be an adjective to a noun (or a pronoun), but that noun doesn't feature in the sentence.)

Overcome by emotion, the whole speech was delivered in two- and three-word bursts. (The participle phrase is meant to be an adjective to a noun, but the noun is missing.)

To avoid a dangling modifier, assume that any participle phrase you put at the start of a sentence is "dangling" (i.e., isn't modifying anything) until you've written the noun (or pronoun) it is modifying.

  • Having taken the antimalarial tablets religiously, Sarah was shocked by the malaria diagnosis.
  • Overcome by emotion, he delivered the whole speech in two- and three-word bursts.

Avoid misplaced modifiers when using participle phrases.

With a dangling modifier, the noun being modified is missing. With a misplaced modifier, the noun being modified is too far away. To avoid a misplaced modifier, make sure it's obvious which noun (or pronoun) your participle phrase is modifying. Often, context will tell your readers which noun the modifier belongs to, but a misplaced modifier will – at the very least – cause a reading stutter and portray you as a clumsy writer. Sometimes, a misplaced modifier can lead to your sentence being ambiguous.

The meerkats are acutely aware of the eagles, scurrying from burrow to burrow. (This is not wrong technically but it is clumsy and potentially ambiguous – if you knew nothing about meerkats or eagles. Note also that if the comma were missing, this sentence would definitely be wrong because it would mean "the eagles that are scurrying from burrow to burrow" .)

Tattered but not ripped, Lee handed the ticket to the doorman. (This is clumsy and potentially ambiguous.)

Tim saw David Attenborough, filming the leatherback turtles for Blue Planet. (This is clumsy. There are better ways to avoid ambiguity than relying on that comma.)

The best way to avoid a misplaced modifier with a participle phrase is to put it next to the noun it's modifying. Let's fix the examples above.

  • Scurrying from burrow to burrow, the meerkats are acutely aware of the eagles.
  • Lee handed the ticket, tattered but not ripped, to the doorman.
  • When he was filming the leatherback turtles for Blue Planet, Tim saw David Attenborough. (Rewording your sentence is often a good idea.)

Use a participle phrase to say something about your subject before you've even mentioned your subject. That's cool. For example:

  • Packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, oranges are a popular fruit.

Placed at the front of a sentence, a participle phrase is offset with a comma. A participle phrase placed immediately after the noun its modifying is not offset with commas (unless it's nonessential).

Put your participle phrase next to its noun. If there isn't a noun, you're dangling (and that's never good). Having read your letter, my cat could not have fathered your kittens. (cats do not read) Having read your letter, I can assure you that my cat could not have fathered your kittens.

Adverbial Phrase

An adverbial phrase is a group of words that functions as an adverb.

Jack will sit (in silence). (The adverbial phrase "in silence" is functioning as an adverb of manner. It tells us how Jack sat.)

Jack will sit quietly. (This is a normal adverb. This example has been included to prove that "in silence" is an adverb.)

I will sit (like a monk meditates). (This is an adverbial clause. It includes a subject ("a monk") and a verb ("meditates").) In the examples above, all the adverbs tell us how the person will sit. They are all adverbs of manner. When used to modify a verb, an adverb (including an adverbial phrase and an adverbial clause) will usually describe when, where, how, or why something happens.

When (Adverbial Phrase of Time)

An adverbial phrase of time states when something happens or how often. For example:

I'll do it in a minute. After the game, the king and pawn go into the same box. (Italian Proverb) Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day. (Albert Camus)

Where (Adverbial Phrase of Place)

An adverbial phrase of place states where something happens.

I used to work in a fire-hydrant factory. You couldn't park (anywhere near the place). Opera is when a guy gets stabbed (in the back) and, instead of bleeding, he sings.

How (Adverbial Phrase of Manner)

An adverbial phrase of manner states how something is done.

He would always talk (with a nationalistic tone). He sings (in a low register). People who say they sleep (like a baby) usually don't have one.

Why (Adverbial Phrase of Reason)

An adverbial phrase of reason states why something is done.

He went to the island (to find gold). He plays up (to impress his class mates). We tell ourselves stories (in order to live).

The Format of Adverbial Phrases

Here are three common formats for adverbial phrases:

Prepositional phrase.

A prepositional phrase is headed by a preposition (e.g., "in," "on," "near," "by," "with").

He was standing (in the corner). She is winning (without trying).

Infinitive phrase.

An infinitive phrase is headed by an infinitive verb (e.g., "to play," "to jump").

She went to Florence (to paint). Fill in this form (to join our club).

An adverb with an intensifier.

An adverb with an intensifier (e.g., "very," "extremely," "really") is also an adverbial phrase.

He answered you (very quickly). She danced (extremely beautifully).

There are, of course, other formats. We arrived (a day later than expected). I paid him (every week).

If you have a group of words that is functioning as an adverb and that doesn't feature a subject and a verb (meaning it's not a adverbial clause), then you're looking at an adverbial phrase.

Why Should I Care about Adverbial Phrases?

Here are four good reasons to think more carefully about adverbial phrases.

1- Be careful not to create a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier is a word (or group of words) that does not link clearly to what it is intended to modify. A misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong.

Jack, coax the monkey with the banana. (The adverbial phrase modifying the verb "coax."is supposed to tell Jack how to coax the monkey. However, it could feasibly be an adjective phrase describing the monkey, telling Jack which monkey to coax.)

  • Jack, use the banana to coax the monkey. (Often, rewording is best. This corrected example does not feature an adverbial phrase.)

"He was a hero at his last police station. He once [(shot) a (robber)] (with a Kalashnikov.)" "Great, where did he get that?" "No, the robber had the Kalashnikov."

(It is meant to be an adjective phrase describing the robber. However, it was taken to be an adverbial phrase modifying the verb "shot.")

2- Use commas correctly with your adverbial clauses. When your adverbial phrase (or clause for that matter) is at the front of your sentence, it is known as a "fronted adverbial." A fronted adverbial is usually offset with a comma.

At 4 o'clock, open the gates. In the middle of New York, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit.

When your adverbial phrase is at the back, the tendency is to omit the comma. Open the gates at 4 o'clock. Temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of New York.

Adverbial phrases at both ends:

In July 1936, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of New York. In the middle of New York, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in July 1936.

If your adverbial phrase is short (say, 1-4 words in length), there is less need for the comma, which can now be safely omitted. With a short adverbial phrase, you can still use a comma, especially if you want to emphasize the adverbial phrase or create a pause for effect.

3- Save two words by writing "to" instead of "in order to." To reduce your word count, you can usually replace "in order to" with "to" without any loss of meaning.

The mountaineers spent two months with the air-sea rescue team in order to gain experience. Even though it adds to your word count, you should not delete "in order" every time.

Using "in order to" makes it clear that the text that follows is the reason for performing the action. (It's like using "so as to.")

Using just "to" runs the risk of creating a misplaced modifier. Jack designed a device in order to find underground water. Jack designed a device to find underground water. (we're now unsure whether Jack designed an underground-water finder (i.e., "to find underground water" is an adjective describing "device")

There's another advantage to using "in order to." It puts a little more emphasis on the reason for the action. So, save two words if you need to, but be careful not to create a misplaced modifier.

4- Delete your intensifier, unless you really need it. When writing formally, the level of intensity should be achieved through word choice (e.g., by using strong adjectives instead of intensifiers). Using intensifiers is widely considered as lazy writing.

She was very angry. (This is considered as lazy writing.) She was livid. (There is no need for an intensifier with a strong adjective like "livid.")

This quotation captures why you should use intensifiers sparingly. If everything is very important, then nothing is important.

Could your adverbial phrase feasibly be an adjective phrase? Avoid misplaced modifiers. Read the book in the corner. (Is "in the corner" an adverbial phrase telling us where to read the book, or is "in the corner" an adjective phrase telling us which book to read?)

If your adverbial is fronted, use a comma. Don't use a comma if it's at the back.

Save two words by writing "to" instead of "in order to." (But then check for a misplaced modifier.) Have you used the word "very"? Yes? Delete it.