Definition of Phrase

A grammatical term, which is a group of words, functions as a meaningful part or unit within a clause or sentence is called phrase. It consists of a headword that determines the grammatical nature of the unit and an optional modifier. A phrase may consist of other phrases as well.

When it becomes difficult to describe something through an adjective or adverb, there comes a phrase to help the writer. For instance, “It is always the best policy to speak the truth – unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.” (The Idler, by Jerome K. Jerome). In this sentence, the underlined phrase is an adjective phrase.

Types of Phrase

Based on constructions and functions, phrase is of eight types:

  • Noun Phrase (NP)

A noun phrase contains a noun as a headword and related words such as determiners (like the, her, a) and modifiers, which modify that noun. It serves as a noun within a sentence.

A prepositional phrase contains a preposition, an object of preposition (pronoun or noun) and related modifiers. It mostly starts with a preposition and ends with an object of a preposition. It serves as an adjective, or adverb within a sentence.

  • Adjective Phrase (Adj Ph)

An adjective phrase works as an adjective within a sentence. It contains an adjective, some relevant determiners and modifiers, and a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. The function of this phrase is to work as a verb, noun, preposition, adverb, or an adjective. The role of the phrase in writing depends upon its construction.

  • Adverb Phrase (Adv Ph)

It works as an adverb within a sentence. It contains and adverb and other grammatical units such as a verb, noun, preposition, and some modifiers.

It consists of the main verb and auxiliaries or helping verbs within a sentence. According to Transformational generative grammar, verb phrases may contain the main verb, auxiliaries, modifiers, and compliments. It could refer to the whole predicate of a sentence.

  • Infinitive Phrase (IP)

An infinitive phrase contains an infinitive, which is a combination of (to+ simple verb form), with or without other words, and modifiers associated with that infinitive. It always works as a noun, adjective or adverb within a sentence.

  • Gerund Phrase (GP)

Gerund phrases contain a gerund, combination of (verb+ing) other words, and modifiers associated with that gerund. In a sentence, it functions as a noun.

  • Participle Phrase (Part Ph)

Participle phrases contain a present participle, which is (verb+ing), and a past participle, modifiers, or other associated words. They are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. A participle phrases act as an adjective within a sentence.

  • Absolute Phrase (AP)

Absolute phrase consists of a noun, pronoun, participle, and associated modifiers. They are also known as nominative phrases. They modify or provide information about an entire sentence. Absolute phrases look like clauses, yet they lack a true finite verb. They are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

Examples of Phrase in Literature

Example #1: The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (by Stephen Crane)

“The man stood laughing, his weapons at his hips.”

These lines have used absolute phrase as underlined. This phrase has modified the entire sentence, or provided information about a man and his stature.

Example #2: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (by Barbara Kingsolver)

“Humans can be fairly ridiculous animals.”

In this example, the underlined words show an adjective phrase modifying noun “humans.” It is functioning as an adjective in this sentence.

Example #3: Life in Motion (by Misty Copeland)

“Lola walked over, gently grabbed me by the hand, and led me to the front of the class.”

Copeland has used prepositional phrase twice in this sentence. Both phrases contain prepositions, object of a preposition (pronoun), and modifiers. These phrases are modifying pronouns.

Example #4: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (by Milan Kundera)

To laugh is to live profoundly.”

This is an instance of infinitive phrase. Both phrases are based on particle “to” and base verbs “laugh” and “live.” In the second phrase, “profoundly” is a modifier.


A phrase functions as a verb, noun, preposition, adverb, or an adjective. The role of a phrase in writing depends upon its construction. It expresses an idea in a unit to give additional meanings to the text. If writers use it properly, it makes a written work more concise and professional.

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