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The Difference Between a Clause and a Phrase

At the end of my last post on this subject, I explained to you that sentences contain subjects, predicates, clauses, and phrases.

But what is a clause? What is a phrase? And how exactly are these two things different from a sentence? Although knowing the definitions won’t help you directly for the TOEFL—learning strategies and doing practice questions is much better for that—understanding the difference between a clause, phrase, and sentence can improve your general reading and writing ability. This skill also helps you improve your English listening and speaking. You may even find that your academic writing and speech in your first language becomes more impressive!

The final example TOEFL sentence we saw in the last post contained many clauses and phrases. Here is the sentence once more, for your consideration:

  • But if we see a precise balance of nature, it is largely an artifact of our perception, due to the illusion that nature, especially a complex system like a forest, seems so unchanging from one day to the next.
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A subject-predicate pairing in a sentence is called a clause. In the long sentence I showed you above, “But if we see a precise balance of nature” is a clause. It is not the whole sentence, but it does have a subject and predicate. Let’s look at another simpler example of a TOEFL sentence that contains a clause:

  • It’s hardly a fair criticism that encyclopedias online have errors.

Here we have two different subject-predicate sets, so the sentence has two clauses. “It’s hardly a fair criticism” is one clause. “That encyclopedias online have errors” is the second clause. (This, by the way, is called a relative clause, because it is introduced by the relativized “that.”). The whole sentence combines these two clauses.



Phrases are words or groups of words that are meaningful, but do not have both a subject and a predicate. In English grammar, there are different types of phrases, named after their grammatical function. For example, “the old house” is a noun phrase. It is a phrase that describes and presents the noun “house.” “Fell down slowly” is a verb phrase, because it describes and presents the past tense verb “fell.” There are other phrases too, such as prepositional phrases, adjective phrases, and so on. With a few exceptions, sentences in English should have a noun phrase and verb phrase.

In this post’s final example, we’ll look at a sentence from a TOEFL reading and identify the phrases it contains:

  • The presence of dinosaur fossils in the polar regions indicates that dinosaurs were able to survive in very cold climates and therefore must have been endotherms.

Phrase-wise, there’s a lot going on here! “The presence of dinosaur fossils in the polar regions” is a noun phrase. Within that noun phrase, “of dinosaur fossils” is one of two prepositional phrases. The noun phrase’s other prepositional phrase is “in the polar regions.” Inside each prepositional phrase, we have smaller noun phrases: “dinosaur fossils” in the first prepositional phrase, and “polar regions” in the second one. So we have noun phrases that are inside prepositional phrases that in turn are inside a larger noun phrase!

And that’s just the first half of the sentence. Now that we’ve looked at the phrases in the subject, we can move on to find the phrases in the predicate. The predicate of the example above is “indicates that dinosaurs were able to survive in very cold climates and therefore must have been endotherm.” The entire predicate can be seen as one long verb phrase. Inside this verb phrase, we see the relative clause “that dinosaurs were able to survive in very cold climates and therefore must have been endotherms.” Inside this clause, we have the noun phrase “dinosaurs,” which is the subject of the clause. (Yes, a phrase can sometimes be a single word.)

After the relative clause’s subject “dinosaurs,” there’s predicate “were able to survive in very cold climates and therefore must have been endotherms,” which is also a verb phrase. Inside this verb phrase we have the prepositional phrase “in very cold climates.” This prepositional phrase contains the noun phrase “very cold climates.” Then we have the coordinating conjunction phrase “and therefore.” After this conjunction (but still within the predicate/verb phrase) we have the smaller verb phrase “must have been endotherms.” Inside this smaller verb phrase, we have the one-word noun phrase “endotherms.”

Being able to identify sentences, clauses, and phrases can seem overwhelming at first. But if you practice with sentences in the TOEFL, you’ll quickly find yourself getting good at this important skill. Understanding clause and phrase structure will make you a better reader, listener, speaker, and writer. In my next post on this subject, I’ll give you some review activities and exercises to help you really master clauses and phrases as you reach for your target score!


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