What Is a Phrase? Definition and Examples in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Illustrated depiction of 5 different types of phrases in English grammar


In English grammar, a phrase is a group of two or more words functioning as a meaningful unit within a sentence or clause. A phrase is commonly characterized as a grammatical unit at a level between a word and a clause.

A phrase is made up of a head (or headword)—which determines the grammatical nature of the unit—and one or more optional modifiers. Phrases may contain other phrases inside them.

Common types of phrases include noun phrases (such as a good friend), verb phrases (drives carefully), adjective phrases (very cold and dark), adverb phrases (quite slowly), and prepositional phrases (in first place).

Pronunciation: FRAZE
Etymology: From the Greek, "explain, tell"
Adjective: phrasal.

Examples and Observations

"Sentences can be divided into groups of words that belong together. For instance, in the nice unicorn ate a delicious meal, the, nice, and unicorn form one such group, and a, delicious, and meal form another. (We all know this intuitively.) The group of words is called a phrase.
"If the most important part of the phrase, i.e. the head, is an adjective, the phrase is an Adjective Phrase; if the most important part of the phrase is a noun, the phrase is a Noun Phrase, and so on." — Elly van Gelderen

Types of Phrases With Examples

  • Noun Phrase
    "Buy a big bright green pleasure machine!" — Paul Simon, "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," 1966
  • Verb Phrase
    "Your father may be going away for a little while." — Ellen Griswold in the movie "Vacation," 1983
  • Adjective Phrase
    "It is always the best policy to speak the truth—unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar." — Jerome K. Jerome, "The Idler," February 1892
  • Adverb Phrase
    "Movements born in hatred very quickly take on the characteristics of the thing they oppose." — J. S. Habgood, "The Observer," May 4, 1986
  • Prepositional Phrase
    "I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you come home." —Groucho Marx in "Duck Soup," 1933
"Prepositional phrases differ from the other four types of phrase in that a preposition cannot stand alone as the head word of a phrase. Although a preposition is still the head word in a prepositional phrase, it has to be accompanied by another element—or prepositional complement—if the phrase is to be complete. Most typically, the prepositional complement will be a noun phrase." — Kim Ballard

An Expanded Definition of Phrase

A prototypical phrase is a group of words forming a unit and consisting of a head or "nucleus" together with other words or word groups clustering around it. If the head of the phrase is a noun, we speak of a noun phrase (NP) (e.g. all those beautiful houses built in the sixties). If the head is a verb, the phrase is a verb phrase (VP). In the following sentence, the VP is in italics and the verb head is in bold:

Jill prepared us a couple of sandwiches.

"A phrase is only potentially complex. In other words, the term is also used to refer to 'one-word phrases,' i.e. non-prototypical phrases that consist of a head only. Thus the sentence Jill smokes is a combination of a noun phrase and a verb phrase."
— Renaat Declerck, Susan Reed, and Bert Cappelle

Phrases, Nesting Phrases, and Clauses

"Phrases contrast with clauses, which they do, however, resemble. ... The main feature of a clause is that it has all the components of a potentially independent sentence, namely a verb and usually a subject, and perhaps objects, too. A part of a sentence with just these components would be called a clause rather than a phrase. A phrase can contain a verb, without its subject, or it may itself be the subject of some verb." —James R. Hurford

Hurford notes two ways that phrases can appear inside other phrases:

  • Conjoining smaller phrases by a conjunction, such as and, but or or
  • Nesting a smaller phrase inside a larger one

Hurford's examples of nesting a smaller phrase inside a larger one as an integral part of it [the nested phrase is in italics]:

  • Might in all probability be coming
  • Ran away home quickly to his mother
  • Five extremely tall basketball players
  • Out from under the kitchen table
  • Is not very convincingly established

Complex Structures

"Noun phrases and prepositional phrases can have particularly complex structure in written texts, with several layers of phrase embedding. In fact, the complexity of phrases is a very striking measure for comparing the complexity of syntax in different registers of English. The simplest structures occur in conversation and the complexity increases through fiction and newspaper writing, with academic writing showing the greatest complexity of phrase structure." — Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech


  • Van Gelderen, Elly. "An Introduction to the Grammar of English: Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background." John Benjamins, 2002, Amsterdam.
  • Ballard, Kim. "The Frameworks of English: Introducing Language Structures," 3rd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, Basingstoke, UK, New York.
  • Declerck, Renaat; Reed, Susan, and Cappelle, Bert. "The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis." Mouton de Gruyter, 2006, Berlin, New York.
  • Hurford, James R. "Grammar: A Student's Guide." Cambridge University Press, 1994, Cambridge.
  • Biber, Douglas; Conrad, Susan; and Leech, Geoffrey. "Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English." Longman, 2002, London.
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Phrase? Definition and Examples in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/phrase-grammar-1691625. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Phrase? Definition and Examples in Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phrase-grammar-1691625 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Phrase? Definition and Examples in Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phrase-grammar-1691625 (accessed June 1, 2023).