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Kinds of Phrases
A phrase is a group of related words that does not include a
subject and verb. (If the group of related words does contain a subject and
verb, it is considered a clause.) There are several different kinds of phrases.
Understanding how they are constructed and how they function within a sentence
can bolster a writer's confidence in writing sentences that are sound in
structure and various in form.
A noun phrase comprises a noun (obviously) and
any associated modifiers:
The modifiers that accompany a noun can take any number of
forms and combination of forms: adjectives, of course ("the tall and brilliant
professor"); a participial phrase ("the road following the edge of the frozen
lake"); an infinitive phrase ("the first man to walk on the moon"); a modifying
clause ("the presentation that he had made the day before"); and prepositional
phrases ("the building next to the lodge, over by the highway"). [See below for
definitions of participial, infinitive, and prepositional phrases.] Usually, a
noun phrase will be all of a piece, all the words that compose it being
contiguous with the noun itself. It is possible, however, for a noun phrase to
be broken, to become what we call discontinuous. Sometimes part of the
noun phrase is delayed until the end of the sentence so that that portion of the
phrase (usually modifying phrases — participial or prepositional) can receive
end weight or focus. In our first example, for instance (noun phrase in dark
we could have put the entire noun phrase
together: "Several accidents involving passengers falling from trains have been
reported recently." Shifting the modifying phrases of the red-colored part of
the phrase to the end puts additional emphasis on that part. Here are some other
A rumor circulated
among the staff that he was being promoted to Vice President . (instead of
"A rumor that he was being promoted to Vice President circulated among the
The time had come to
stop spending money foolishly and to put something away for the future .
(instead of "The time to stop spending money foolishly and to put something
away for the future had come.")
That hard drive was
faulty that you sold me . (instead of "That hard drive that you sold me was
What business is it
of yours? (instead of "What business of yours is it? ")
Clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong with a discontinuous
noun phrase. One very good reason for a discontinuous noun phrase is to achieve
a balance between a subject and its predicate:
Without the discontinuous noun phrase in the
sentence above, we end up with a twelve-word subject, a linking verb, and a
one-word predicate — sort of lop-sided.
One thing you want to watch out for with noun phrases is the
long compound noun phrase.* This is sometimes called the "stacked noun
phrase" or "packed noun phrase." It is common to find one noun
modifying another: student body, book cover, water
commission. But when we create a long string of such attributive nouns or
modifiers, we create difficulties:
The difficulty we have here is knowing what is modifying what.
Also, the reader keeps expecting the string to end, so the energy of the
sentence (and our attention) dwindles into a series of false endings. Such
phrases are a particular temptation in technical writing. Usually, the solution
to an overly extended compound noun phrase is to take the last noun of the
series and liberate it from the rest of the string (putting it at the beginning
of the sentence) and then to turn at least one of the modifying nouns into a
(This is one situation in which making a sentence
longer is probably an advantage.)
A vocative — an addressed person's name or substitute
name — is often a single word but sometimes takes the form of a noun phrase. A
vocative is always treated as a parenthetical element and is thus set off from
the rest of the sentence with a comma or a pair of commas (if it appears within
the flow of a sentence). When vocatives are proper nouns (usually the case),
they are also referred to as "nouns of address." Vocatives are like
adverbs: they can pop up almost anywhere in the sentence. Do not, however, get
into the habit of throwing commas at people's names; unless the name refers to
someone who is actually being addressed, it is not a vocative and will not
necessarily be parenthetical:
Quirk and Greenbaum enumerate four
different kinds of vocatives:
Single names, with or
without a title: Jorge, Mr. Valdez, Dr. Valdez, Uncle, Grandma. Dr.
Valdez, will you please
address the graduates?
The personal pronoun you
(not a polite form of address): You, put down that gun! The second
person pronoun is sometimes combined with other words (but the result is
often rather rude and is never used in formal prose ["You
over there, hurry up!" "You
with the purple hair and silver nose rings, get back in line!"]) The
indefinite pronouns can also serve as a vocative:
Call an ambulance, somebody!
Quick, anybody! Give me a hand!
Appellatives (what we call
people) of endearment ("Darling," "Sweetheart," "My dear," "Love") Come sit
next to me, my dear.; of respect ("Sir," "Madam," "Your Honor,"
"Ladies and gentlemen") I would
ask you, Sir, never to do that again.; of profession or status
("Professor," "Mr. President," "Madam Chairman," "Coach")
Please, Coach, let me play
for a while.
Whoever is making that noise,
stop it now.
A prepositional phrase consists of a
preposition, a noun or pronoun that serves as the object of the preposition,
and, more often than not, an adjective or two that modifies the object. Ernest
Hemingway apparently fell in love with the rhythms of his prepositional phrases
at the beginning of his short story "Hills
Like White Elephants":
The hills across the
valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and
no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close
against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building
and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door
into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a
table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express
from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for
two minutes and went on to Madrid.
Prepositional phrases usually tell when or where: "in forty
minutes," "in the sun, against the side, etc." Prepositional phrases can perform
other functions, however: Except Jo,
the children were remarkably
like their father.
A prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence
constitutes an introductory modifier, which is usually a signal for a comma.
However, unless an introductory prepositional phrase is unusually long, we
seldom need to follow it with a comma.
You may have learned that ending a sentence with a
preposition is a serious breach of grammatical etiquette. It doesn't take a
grammarian to spot a sentence-ending preposition, so this is an easy rule to get
caught up on (!). Although it is often easy to remedy the offending preposition,
sometimes it isn't, and repair efforts sometimes result in a clumsy sentence.
Based on shaky historical precedent, the rule itself is a latecomer to the rules
of writing. Those who dislike the rule are fond of recalling Churchill's
rejoinder: <"That is nonsense up with
which I shall not put." We should also remember the child's complaint
(attributed to E.B. White): "What did
you bring that book that I don't like to be read to out of up for?"
An appositive is a re-naming or amplification
of a word that immediately precedes it. (An appositive, then is the
opposite of an oppositive.) Frequently another kind of phrase will serve
My favorite teacher,
a fine chess player in her own right, has won several state-level
tournaments. [Noun phrase as
The best exercise,
walking briskly, is also the least expensive.
[Gerund phrase as appositive]
Tashonda's goal in
life, to become an occupational therapist, is within her grasp this
year, at last. [Infinitive phrase as
Usually (but not always, as we shall see), an
absolute phrase (also called a nominative absolute) is a group of words
consisting of a noun or pronoun and a participle as well as
any related modifiers. Absolute phrases do not directly connect to or
modify any specific word in the rest of the sentence; instead, they modify the
entire sentence, adding information. They are always treated as parenthetical
elements and are set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma or a
pair of commas (sometimes by a dash or pair of dashes). Notice that absolute
phrases contain a subject (which is often modified by a participle), but
not a true finite verb.
as winners secured by victory, the New York Liberty charged into the
The season nearly
finished, Rebecca Lobo and Sophie Witherspoon emerged as true leaders.
The two superstars
signed autographs into the night, their faces beaming happily.
When the participle of an absolute phrase is a
form of to be, such as being or having been, the participle
is often left out but understood.
[being] over, they were mobbed by fans in Times Square.
Stars all their adult lives, they seemed used to the attention.
Another kind of absolute phrase is found after
a modified noun; it adds a focusing detail or point of focus to the idea of the
main clause. This kind of absolute phrase can take the form of a prepositional
phrase, an adjective phrase, or a noun phrase.
The old firefighter
stood over the smoking ruins, his senses alert to any sign of another
His subordinates, their faces sweat-streaked and smudged with ash, leaned heavily against
They knew all too
well how all their hard work could be undone — in an instant.
It is not unusual for the information supplied
in the absolute phrase to be the most important element in the sentence. In
fact, in descriptive prose, the telling details will often be wrapped into a
sentence in the form of an absolute phrase:
strolled onto the court, her arms akimbo and a large silver whistle
clenched between her teeth.
The new recruits
stood in one corner of the gym, their uniforms stiff and ill fitting,
their faces betraying their anxiety.
A noun phrase can also exist as an absolute
Your best friends,
where are they now, when you need them?
And then there was
my best friend Sally — the dear girl — who has certainly fallen on
It might be useful to review the material on Misplaced
Modifiers because it is important not to confuse an absolute phrase with a
An infinitive phrase consists of an infinitive
— the root of the verb preceded by to — and any modifiers or complements
associated with it. Infinitive phrases can act as adjectives, adverbs, and
Her plan to
subsidize child care won wide acceptance among urban politicians.
[modifies plan, functions as an
She wanted to
raise taxes. [noun-object of the
To watch Uncle
Billy tell this story is an eye-opening experience.
[noun-subject of the sentence]
To know her is to
love her. [noun, predicate
Juan went to college
to study veterinary medicine. [tells us
why he went, so it's an adverb]
Gerunds, verbals that end in -ing and
that act as nouns, frequently are associated with modifiers and complements in a
gerund phrase. These phrases function as units and can do anything that a noun
can do. Notice that other phrases, especially prepositional phrases, are
frequently part of the gerund phrase.
tests is not a good study strategy.
[gerund phrase as subject]
John enjoyed swimming in the lake after dark.
[gerund phrase as object]
I'm really not
interested in studying biochemistry for the rest of my life.
[gerund phrase as object of the preposition
Present participles, verbals ending in -ing,
and past participles, verbals that end in -ed (for regular verbs) or
other forms (for irregular verbs), are combined with complements and modifiers
and become part of important phrasal structures. Participial phrases always act
as adjectives. When they begin a sentence, they are often set off by a comma (as
an introductory modifier); otherwise, participial phrases will be set off by
commas if they are parenthetical elements.
The stone steps, having been worn down by generations of students, needed to be replaced.
the clock, the firefighters finally put out the last of the California
brush fires. [modifies
The pond, frozen
over since early December, is now safe for ice-skating.
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