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US English 101: The Phrase


US English 101 is brought to you by Lindiana, who holds her Bachelor of Science Degree in Secondary Education/English.


When putting a sentence together, words act not only individually but as a group. The grouped words can work together in a variety of ways but the way we will be concentrating on in this chapter is the phrase. We touched upon the verb phrase during the chapter on parts of speech but we shall discuss all types of phrases in this chapter.

A phrase is a group of words not containing a verb and its subject. A phrase is used as a single part of speech and is not a sentence. There are five major types of phases that we will be reviewing: prepositional phrases, participial phrases, gerund phrases, infinitive phrases, and appositive phrases.

The Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is a group of words that begins with a preposition and usually ends with a noun or pronoun. In review, the following is a list of common prepositions: about, at, but (meaning except), into, throughout, above, before, by, like, to, across, behind, concerning, of, toward, after, below, down, off, under, against, beneath, during, on, underneath, along, beside, except, over, until, amid, besides, for, past, unto, among, between, from , since, up, around, beyond, in, through, upon, with, within and without.

The noun or pronoun that ends the prepositional phrase is called the object of the preposition. In the phrase after the break, after is functioning as a preposition. The object of the preposition is break. The easiest way to figure out the object of the preposition is ask yourself what as in "after what?" and your answer above would be "the break". Try to find the prepositional phrase in the following sentence: Jane lifted her head with a laugh.

If you said with a laugh, you are correct. Now name the preposition and the object of the preposition.

If you said the preposition was with and the object was a laugh, you are correct.

Prepositional phrases are usually used to modify or expand the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, they usually function as an adjective or adverb. Occasionally, a prepositional phrase can be used as a noun. Example: After lunch will be too early. In this example, after lunch is the subject of the sentence and functions as a noun.

The Adjective Phrase

The adjective phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies, or expands the definition of, a noun or a pronoun, just like an adjective does.

The Adverb Phrase

The adverb phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies, or expands the definition of, a verb, an adjective or another adverb, just like an adverb does.

The Participial, Gerund and Infinitive Phrases

The last three types of verbal phrases are far less common than the prepositional phrase but are very useful for a writer. They are called verbal phrases because the most important word in them is verbal. Verbals are called that because they are formed by verbs and, in some respects, act like verbs. They may express an action, they may contain a modifier and they may be followed by a complement. However, verbal phrases are NOT used as verbs in a sentence. They can be used as a noun, adjective or adverb but they are not used as verbs.

The Participle and the Participial Phrase

A participle is a verb form that is used as an adjective. Examples: The rapidly developing storm kept small boats in port. Developing rapidly, the storm kept small boats in port. The storm, developing rapidly, kept small boats in port.

In all three of the above sentences, the word developing which is formed from the verb develop is used as an adjective modifying the noun storm.

There are two kinds of participles: past and present. A present participle indicates present tense and ends in –ing. A past participle indicates past tense and ends in –ed, -d, -t, -en, or –n. Participles are formed from verbs but are not used as verbs. A participle may be used with a verb, however, to form a verb phrase. When participles are used in a verb phrase, they are considered part of the verb, not an adjective.

A participial phrase is a phrase containing a participle and any complements or modifiers it may have. The participle usually introduces the phrase, and the entire phrase acts as an adjective to modify a noun or pronoun. Please not the italicized participial phrases in the following sentences: Tony Stewart, driving with skill, won the championship. Waking up at five, we got an early start to the race track. Destroyed by fire, the car was never rebuilt.

The Gerund and the Gerund Phrase

A gerund is a verb form ending in –ing that is used as a noun. Examples: Traveling is expensive. Good writing comes from practice.

In the first example, traveling is formed from the verb travel but as the subject of the sentence, it is functioning as a noun. In the second example, writing is formed from the verb write but again is functioning as a noun and the subject of the sentence.

A gerund phrase is a phrase consisting of a gerund and any complements or modifiers it may have. An example: Finding a needle in a haystack is a traditional example of the impossible. In this sentence, the gerund finding has needle as its direct object and is modified by the adverb phrase in a haystack. Like the gerund alone, the gerund phrase may be used in any place that a noun would fit.

The Infinitive and the Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive is a verb form, usually preceded by to, that is used as a noun or a modifier. An infinitive is generally used as a noun, but it may also be used as an adjective or an adverb. Here is an example of the infinitive used as a noun: Everyone wanted to fly. Here is an example of the infinitive used as an adjective: It is futile to resist. And finally, here is an example of the infinitive being used as an adverb: We study to learn. Do not confuse the infinitive version of to with the preposition to. Infinitive: to fly, to draw. Prepositional phrases: to her, to school.

In infinitives, the word 'to' is sometimes omitted from the sentence. Note the following: She made me (to) leave. To is not necessary to the sentence and may be dropped but it is still an infinitive phrase.

An infinitive phrase consists of an infinitive and any complements or modifiers it may have. Infinitive phrases, like infinitives, can be used as nouns or modifiers. Unlike other verbals, an infinitive may have a subject as well as complements and modifiers. Note the following sentence: I expected Jane to vote for me. Jane is the subject of the infinitive to vote. When an infinitive has a subject, as in the preceding example, the construction is called an infinitive clause.

The Appositive

Finally, an appositive is a noun or pronoun, often with modifiers, set beside another noun or pronoun to explain or identify it. Examples: Your brother John is visiting. John is the appositive identifying the noun brother. Literotica, a website, has the finest erotic stories around. Here the appositive website identifies the noun Literotica. Please note the appositive may precede or follow the word it describes.

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