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Phrases and Clauses in Writing

Do you know the difference between phrases and clauses? I have to admit that once upon a time, I would look at those two words and think that they essentially meant the same thing. I was wrong, of course. If you also need to understand phrases and clauses (and why you should care), read on!

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What Are Phrases?

A phrase is a group of two or more words. This group can contain a noun or a verb, but not both! It can have a noun but no verb, or a verb but no noun.

It also has no subject or predicate. (Refresher: A predicate is really just another word for a verb or verb phrase.)

A phrase absolutely cannot stand on its own, but is meant to add context, color, or depth to a sentence. It makes things interesting.

Finally, a phrase can nestle itself right in the middle of clauses, whether they are dependent or independent clauses. And since a phrase is in the midst of clauses or sentences, it actually functions as a part of speech.

Types of Phrases

Phrases come in various forms. They are functional parts of speech, and we name them accordingly. Some of the types of phrases that you will encounter are:

  • Noun Phrases
  • Verb Phrases
  • Prepositional Phrases
  • Adjective Phrases
  • Participle Phrases
  • Possessive Noun or Pronoun Phrases

Exploring Noun Phrases

Obviously, a noun phrase includes a noun, a verb phrase includes a verb, and so on. You don’t have to be a MENSA candidate to see that one! But let’s explore further.

A noun phrase has a noun and its modifier – that is to say, a word or words that describe, or give us more information about, the noun.

For instance, if the subject of my sentence is a child, you won’t know which child I’m talking about until you see the modifier. Keep in mind that the modifier can be a phrase, clause, or a single word.

    The crying child (participle crying)

    The child who ran (verb phrase who ran)

    The sick child (adjective sick)

    The child who fed my dog
    The subject is the child, the verb phrase is who fed, and the direct object is my dog.

    The child smearing paint all over himself
    The subject is the child, the participle phrase is smearing paint, with a prepositional phrase all over himself.

Single words can also modify nouns, and typically come before the noun.

  • Articles: a, an, the
     
  • Adjectives: the big cat, the fat cat, the black cat
     
  • Participles: the crying baby, the smiling baby, the sleeping baby
     
  • Possessive Pronouns (or nouns): our house, their house, his house, Mike’s house

When modifiers come after the noun they are generally phrases or clauses.

  • Prepositional phrases: the lion on the loose, the lion in the cave, the lion under the tree
     
  • Adjective phrases: the child who hugs his friend, the child who won the contest, the child who throws tantrums
     
  • Participle phrases: the monkey screeched loudly, the monkey eating all day, the monkey swinging from branch to branch

Noun phrases can operate in a sentence as the subject, direct object, indirect object, or object of a preposition.

Clauses

Whereas phrases cannot include both a subject and predicate (subject noun and a verb), clauses must includes both parts of speech. So if a clause has both a subject and predicate, wouldn’t that make it a sentence?

No. Or at least, not always.

There are two types of clauses:

1. Dependent Clause

This is a clause that cannot stand on its own. It does not represent a complete thought, and is not a complete sentence. Typically this is because there is an extra word that makes it dependent.

    Ex. Since I started going to the gym, I’ve lost 25 pounds.

Since I started going to the gym is a dependent clause. It cannot stand on its own, but needs something else to make it complete. The word since is the culprit.

If you take out since, you have this: I started going to the gym; I’ve lost 25 pounds.

2. Independent Clause

This is a clause that is a complete thought, and can stand on its own as a sentence.

Examples:

    I went to the salon.

    We took a ride.

    Rhonda was reading her book.

    Joe was writing a letter.

Many times such simple independent clauses are made more interesting by the addition of other parts of speech. You can join two independent clauses as explained in our article on how to use a semicolon, or you can add phrases or other parts of speech to embellish the sentence. Regardless of these options, the fact remains these are all complete sentences in and of themselves.

Phrases and Clauses: Final Thoughts

I hope you had fun trying to grasp some of the fundamental concepts of phrases and clauses. My goal here was to help you understand the basics of these parts of speech. If you’d like more information on phrases and clauses, be sure to check out the Professional Writing lessons at Magoosh.

Knowing the basics of phrases and clauses will make it more likely that you will punctuate your sentences correctly, and make the people who read your writing very happy!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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