Phrases and Clauses
Most people find grammar confusing. I often wonder why that is. I suspect it’s because of how it’s taught. But basic grammar doesn’t have to blow your mind. There are just a handful of basic concepts you have to understand, and after that, it’s all about solving the puzzle.
The first concept you need to understand grammar is the infamous parts of speech. This is where most grammar curricula start — as they should. I’ll talk about the parts of speech in detail in another post, but for now, just understand that when we refer to the parts of speech, we are talking about the function of words. Every word you’ve ever written, spoken, or read performs one of the eight or nine functions covered by the parts of speech. Words that name things are nouns. Words that take the place of nouns are pronouns. Words that show action or state of being are verbs. Words that modify other words are adjectives and adverbs. Words that connect ideas are conjunctions. Words that show relationship are prepositions, and words that indicate emotion are interjections. That’s it. Pretty much every word ever used fits into one of those categories.
Once you’ve got the basics of parts of speech figured out, you can move on to the subject of this article: phrases and clauses. Words often work together with other words to create meaning. They form word groups. And there are only two basic kinds of word groups: phrases and clauses.
Oh, sure, there are different kinds of phrases and different kinds of clauses, but before you worry about that, just grasp the simplicity of it all. When words join up together, they either form a phrase or a clause. There are no other possibilities.
So, what’s the difference between a phrase and a clause? Easy. Check it out:
A phrase is a group of words that functions like one of the parts of speech. Remember how each word does one of eight jobs? Phrases do some of the same jobs, only they do it as a group of words instead of a single word.
Let’s look at a simple sentence: A silly man danced. As with every sentence, each of these words functions individually as one of the parts of speech. The word silly, for example, is an adjective because it modifies, or describes, the noun man.
But what if you wrote it like this: A man in a red hat danced. We’ve replaced the word silly with a group of words: in the red hat. Each of these word is its own part of speech too (preposition, adjective, adjective, noun), but they also work together to perform the same function as the word silly. What kind of man is in the first sentence? A silly man. What kind of man is in the second sentence? A man in a red hat. Both silly and in a red hat describe, or modify, the word man. That’s why we call in a red hat an adjective phrase¹–because the group of words does the job of an adjective.
There are noun phrases and verb phrases, adjective and adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and even interjection phrases. There are others too: participial phrases, gerund phrases, and appositive phrases to name a few, but we can work on those another time. The simple fact is every one of these phrases works like a part of speech. Before you worry about the different kinds, just get the idea of a phrase in your head.
So how is a clause different from a phrase? Simple. A clause always contains a subject and a verb, or predicate. By subject, we mean a noun or pronoun that the clause is about. A verb is a word that shows action (or sometimes state of being, but we’ll get to that later).
Take the sentence from above: A silly man danced. This group of words includes a subject (man) and a verb (danced). The action of the sentence is danced and the word doing the dancing is man. That means you have a clause.
But wait, you might say, I thought a silly man danced is a sentence. Yes, it’s a sentence too. A clause that stands alone as a sentence (or can stand alone as a sentence) is called an independent clause.
But a clause doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. Take the clause whenever I look at you. We have a subject (I) and a verb (look). So, we have a clause. But whenever I look at you is not a complete sentence. It’s just a fragment of an idea that needs other words to make it whole. It’s still a clause though. Clauses that cannot stand alone as a sentence are called dependent, or subordinate, clauses.
A sentence, by the way, is always composed of at least one clause. Sometimes you have to put two clauses together. You might say, for example: Whenever I look at you, my heart pounds in my chest. That’s a complete sentence made up of a dependent clause (whenever I look at you) and an independent clause (my heart pounds in my chest). Both word groups have a subject (I and heart) and a verb (look and pounds). That means they are both clauses.
Maybe you noticed that each of these clauses include a phrase too. At you and in my chest are both phrases that act like adverbs. So you’ve got words wrapped up in phrases, wrapped up in clauses, wrapped up in a sentence. Yup. That’s how it works.
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But let’s get back to the basic idea here — the two simple points to remember:
- A phrase is a group of words that work together like a single part of speech.
- A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a predicate.
Here’s an exercise to help you tell the difference. Which of the following are phrases and which are clauses?
- beyond the mountains
- according to Stanley
- the flower blooms
- have been seen
- if he arrives late
- to infinity and beyond
- Bert hugged Ernie
- when she came to dinner
- to serve and protect
- Achilles cried
The answers will be in the comments below. Let me know how you did!
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Answers to exercise: