Phrase (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

illustrated silhouette of woman speaking
The word around which a phrase is built is the lexical head of that phrase. Alex Belomlinsky/Getty Images

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. Adjective: phrasal.

A phrase is made up of a head (or headword)—which determines the grammatical nature of the unit—and one or more optional modifiers. As discussed by Hurford below, 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).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "explain, tell"

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, An Introduction to the Grammar of English: Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background. John Benjamins, 2002)

Types of Phrases With Examples

  • Noun Phrase
    "Buy a big bright green pleasure machine!"
    (Paul Simon, "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," on the Simon & Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, 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 until the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home."
    (Groucho Marx)
    * "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, The Frameworks of English: Introducing Language Structures, 3rd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

  • 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, The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006)
  • 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. . . .

    "There can be phrases inside other phrases, and this is in fact very common. This can happen in two ways:
    1. 'conjoining' smaller phrases by a conjunction, such as and, but or or;
    2. 'nesting' a smaller phrase inside a larger one, as an integral part of it. . . .

    "Here are some examples of a smaller phrase being 'nested' 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

    "There is in principle no limit on the depth to which phrases may be embedded inside each other in these ways."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  • 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, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman, 2002)

Pronunciation: FRAZ