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10.3: The Phrase

  • Page ID
    6522
  • A phrase is defined as any word or group of words, excluding clauses, that functions as a unit within a sentence. In other words, a phrase can be any group of words that is missing either a subject or a verb. There are many different types of phrases; here we will outline those more commonly seen in English sentences.

    Prepositional Phrase

    Any phrase (with a handful of exceptions) that begins with a preposition is considered a prepositional phrase. There are dozens of different prepositions; the following is a list of common prepositions.

    Aboard Below In Since About Beneath Into
    Through Above Beside Like Throughout Across Between
    Near Till After Beyond Of To Against
    But Off Toward Along By On Under
    Amid Concerning Onto Underneath Among Despite Out
    Until Around Down Outside Up As During
    Over Upon At Except Past With Atop
    For Per Within Before From Regarding Without

    Example 1 - After swimming in the ocean, Marco jumped in the pool.

    There are three prepositional phrases in this sentence; the second, “in the ocean,” is contained within the first. Remember that a preposition will always be modifying either a noun or a verb. All three, in this case, are adverbial: “after swimming” is describing when Marco jumped, while “in the pool” is describing where.

    Example 2 - Our company now imports semiconductors from the Republic of China.

    Here is an example of two prepositional phrases acting adjectivally. “From” is telling us the origin of the semiconductors (though, in this case, it could also be functioning adverbially—that is, describing the verb “imports”), while “of” tells us which republic we're talking about.

    Participial Phrase

    A participle is defined as any verb that ends with -ing or -ed (with regular verbs) and functions as either an adjective or adverb. The participle may also have an object (something receiving the action of the verb) after it, causing it to become a participle phrase.

    Example 1 - Skipping along the forested path, the dwarfs whistled in a merry chorus.

    Here the participle phrase is modifying the subject “dwarfs.” Notice that you can move the participial phrase to different parts of the sentence. It could go either after the subject or at the end of the sentence.

    Example 2 - The kids went bounding down the stairs.

    The participial phrase is acting adverbially in this sentence. In other words, the participle is modifying the verb “went.”

    Gerund Phrase

    The gerund is defined as any -ing verb that functions as a noun. In other words, you can place a gerund phrase in any place in the sentence where a noun could normally function. When the gerund verb has an attendant object or modifiers, we describe it as a gerund phrase.

    Example 1 - For thirty years, Marcel has started every morning by swimming around the bay.

    This gerund phrase is functioning as the object of the preposition “by.”

    Example 2 - Snooping around Facebook is the new way to vet potential employees.

    The gerund phrase here is functioning as the subject of the sentence.

    Infinitive Phrase

    The infinitive is defined as the base (present tense) form of a verb preceded by the word to. An infinitive phrase can function nominally (as a noun), adverbially, or adjectivally.

    1. To talk about poll numbers at this stage of the election is simply counterproductive.
      The infinitive phrase is functioning as a noun by being the subject of the sentence. Notice that there are two prepositional phrases proceeding the infinitive verb: “about poll numbers” and “at this stage of the election.” Because these phrases are both modifying the infinitive verb, we consider them part of the infinitive phrase.
    2. To ensure a full refund, you must also bring your receipt.
      The infinitive phrase is functioning as an adverb modifying the main verb “bring.” Notice that when the infinitive is positioned at the beginning of the sentence and is acting as an adverb (not as the subject), we place a comma after it.
    3. A fistfight is no way to resolve an argument.
      The infinitive phrase is functioning as an adjective modifying the noun “way.”

    Review Questions

    Underline and identify the participial, prepositional, gerund, or infinitive phrase(s) in each sentence.

    1. On Thursday I drove up north to move a couch for a friend.
    2. If your shoes have a lot of surface area, hiking through a snow drift gets a lot easier.
    3. Already exhausted by the second quarter, we were no match for the division champions.
    4. That award, offered once a year to only one teacher in the entire state, is quite an honor to win.
    5. Hoping against all hope that the balding tires would hold and the rusting fuel pump would continue to work, I loaded up all of the possessions that would fit, discarded the rest in a dumpster behind a truck stop, and set out to cross the country.