Words and Phrases
A word is a basic element in a language and the sentence. It can sometimes be difficult to define it; for example, is father-in-law or text book (textbook) one or multiple words? Yet, we generally know intuitively what a word is: the, interesting, much, jump, book, keyboard, structurally, and so on.
Words can be grouped together to create a phrase such as “remote control,” “without delay,” “after a while,” “a well seasoned steak,” and so on.
It is important to note that phrases have no subject performing an action. If a group of words has a subject and a verb, it is a sentence.
A noun phrase consists of a noun (the head word) and other words attached to it. A noun phrase acts as a noun. Notice how the noun phrases in the examples below are not complete sentences; they work as the subject or the object of the sentences in which they appear.
Examples sentences with noun phrases
John dropped a big box.
head word: box (the object of “dropped”)
The long history exam stumped the inexperienced students.
head word: exam (the subject of “stumped”)
head word: students (the object of “stumped”)
The disappointed audience hated the long science-fiction movie.
head word: audience (the subject of “hated”)
head word: movie (the object of “hated”)
“Prepositional phrases” are groups of words that start with a preposition followed by one or more nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Prepositional phrases work as adjectives or adverbs.
A sentence may have more than one prepositional phrase. Look at the examples below.
Example sentences with prepositional phrases
The book with the blue cover belongs to Mary.
Prepositional phrase: with the blue cover (works as an adjective modifying “cover”)
One of my friends has just gotten married.
Prepositional phrase: of my friends (works as an adverb
The researchers in the university by the lake are famous.
Prepositional phrase: in the university
Prepositional phrase: by the lake
My favorite breakfast is a bowl of cereal with fresh fruit.
Prepositional phrase: of cereal
Prepositional phrase: with fresh fruit
A gerund is a verb form consisting of a verb in the -ing from (e.g., going, doing, taking, speaking). Gerunds can be used as nouns, often as the subject or object of a sentence.
Example sentences with gerund phrases
Learning a language can take a long time.
Gerund phrase: learning a language (used as the subject of “take”)
Taking notes during class helps you remember the content.
Gerund phrase: taking notes during class (used as the subject of “helps”)
Note. As you can see, this gerund phrase has a prepositional phrase (during class) embedded in it.
Young children enjoy listening to fantastical stories.
Gerund phrase: listening to fantastical stories (used as the object of “enjoy”)
Participles can be present participles (e.g., driving, speaking, writing, being, saying) or past participles (e.g., driven, spoken, written, been, said). Participle phrases are used as adjectives modifying a noun.
Example sentences with participle phrases
Los Angeles has many actors hoping to become a movie star one day.
Participle phrase: hoping to become movie starts one day (used as an adjective modifying “actors”)
The man driving the blue car is my friend.
Participle phrase: driving the blue car (used as an adjective modifying “the man”)
A sign printed in large red letters warned people not to enter the room.
Participle phrase: printed in large red letters (used as an adjective modifying “a sign”)
Important note about gerund and participle phrases
It is easy to mistake a gerund or participle phrase as a sentence. For example, “having lived in Vietnam for several years as a child” has a verb (live) and complements. However, it is not a complete sentence! You cannot use a gerund or participle phrase by itself; it must be attached to a sentence.
To have a complete sentence, you would have to write, “Jack lived in Vietnam for several years as a child,” where Jack is the subject of “lived.”
An absolute phrase consists of a participle and other modifiers. It is used to add information to a sentence. In the examples below, notice how absolute phrases are separated by commas.
Examples of absolute phrases modifying sentences
Being in a hurry, the careless driver sped and ran red lights.
Absolute phrase: being in a hurry (gives additional information about the driver, that is, the reason the driver sped and ran red lights)
Alexandra sang with her friends, her voice being much better than anyone else’s.
Absolute phrase: her voice being much better than anyone else’s (provides additional information to the first part of the sentence)
Having finished the exam, the student left in a hurry.
Absolute phrase: having finished the exam (adds an explanation to what happened)
Having lived in Vietnam for several years as a child, Jack could speak Vietnamese fairly well.
Absolute phrase: having lived in Vietnam for several years as a child (adds information explaining why Jack could speak Vietnamese)
Practice 1. Practice distinguishing between sentences, phrases, and prepositional phrases.
Continue the lesson to learn about the verb.