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 accept the witness at his word, it is ultimately a result of our own biases, due to the fact that our assessment is based on our perception of his character and not on the inherent truthfulness of his statement.



A subject-predicate pairing in a sentence is called a clause. In the long sentence I showed you above, “But if we accept the witness at his word” 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 sentence that contains a clause:

  • It’s an unfortunate fact that a majority of registered voters do not participate in midterm elections.

Here we have two different subject-predicate sets, so the sentence has two clauses. “It’s an unfortunate fact” is one clause. “That a majority of registered voters do not participate in midterm elections” 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 and identify the phrases it contains:

  • The existence of coal in certain Antarctic areas provides evidence that the continent was once home to plant life and therefore may have been able to support animals as well.

Phrase-wise, there’s a lot going on here! “The existence of coal in certain Antarctic areas” is a noun phrase. Within that noun phrase, “of coal” is one of two prepositional phrases. The noun phrase’s other prepositional phrase is “in certain Antarctic areas.” Inside each prepositional phrase, we have smaller noun phrases: “coal” in the first prepositional phrase, and “Antarctic areas” 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 “provides evidence that the continent was once home to plant life and therefore may have been able to support animals as well.” The entire predicate can be seen as one long verb phrase. Inside this verb phrase, we see the relative clause “that the continent was once home to plant life and therefore may have been able to support animals as well.” Inside this clause, we have the noun phrase “the continent,” which is the subject of the clause.

After the relative clause’s subject “the continent,” there’s the predicate “was once home to plant life and therefore may have been able to support animals as well,” which is also a verb phrase. Inside this verb phrase we have the prepositional phrase “to plant life.” This prepositional phrase contains the noun phrase “plant life.” Then we have the coordinating conjunction phrase “and therefore.” After this conjunction (but still within the predicate/verb phrase) we have the verb phrase “may have been able to support animals as well.” Inside this verb phrase, we have the one-word noun phrase “animals.” (Yes, a phrase can sometimes be a single word.)

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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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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