Phrase Resource Drawer

What is a phrase?

A phrase is a group of words that acts like a single part of speech.  A phrase will never have a subject or a predicate.

Why should I learn to use the different kinds of phrases?

Good writers use phrases because they are an economical way to provide details (factual description) and imagery (descriptions of sense impressions). They can also be used to make metaphors (appositive phrases) and similes (prepositional phrases) that add unexpected beauty and interest to your writing.

Below, you will find examples of and definitions for the different types of phrases.  Phrases are groups of words that function like single parts of speech.  Use these to help you construct sentences of artful beauty and razor-sharp utility.

Prepositional Phrases

A prepositional phrase can act like an adjective or like an adverb.  Adjective prepositional phrases modify (add detail and description) to nouns.  For example, the phrases “around a shadowy corner,” “in a dark forest,” and “with the gingerbread roof” might describe the noun  “house.”  These prepositional phrases tell you where the house is located and which one it is.

Around a shadowy corner in a dark forest lay the strange house with the gingerbread roof.

If you wanted to describe or add detail to a verb in the sentence, you might use prepositional phrases that function like adverbs.  For example, the phrases “with a cookie in each hand” or “outside the strange house” might describe the verb “stood”; these phrases tell where she stood and how she stood.

The witch stood silently outside the strange house with a cookie in each hand.

A writer can construct a simile (a type of comparison between two seemingly unlike things) using a prepositional phrase that begins with the preposition “like” or “as.”

The eyes of the African princess were like stars shining in the night sky.

His fingers were as plump as carrots.

Appositive Phrases

An appositive phrase is a group of words that provides more information about a noun in a sentence.  It could, in fact, be used to replace the noun.  Appositive phrases that follow or precede a noun provide a richer description for the reader than if the writer had simply used the noun by itself. Appositive phrases act like nouns.  Most of the time, appositive phrases are nonrestrictive (in other words, the sentence would function perfectly well without them), so they are most often surrounded by commas, indicating that these phrases are parenthetical, or extra.

Examples:

Oliver Cranberry, a tall, skinny basketball player with one blue and one brown eye, stepped into the path of a truck hurtling down the road at seventy miles per hour.

A tall, skinny basketball player with one blue and one brown eye, Oliver Cranberry stepped into the path of a truck hurtling down the road at seventy miles per hour.

My dog, a scruffy mutt with an engaging grin, met me at the door with his leash in his mouth.

A strapping giant of a man with vivid tattoos all over his arms, the circus performer strutted down Main Street at the head of the parade.

Appositive phrases like the following ones can also be used to construct metaphors (comparisons that do not use the words “like” or “as”).

The giant pine tree, sentinel of the forest, stood guard in the frosty night.

The huge city, an anthill of human activity, sprawled in the distance as the plane approached.

Gerund Phrases

Gerund phrases act like nouns, and they can do anything a noun can do. They can serve as the subjects of sentences or clauses, and they can serve as the object of a verb or of a preposition.  They always start with a verb form that ends in “ing.”  The strange thing about gerunds is that they are formed from verbs, but they don’t act like verbs.  They act like nouns.  

Examples:

Subject of the sentence:

Swinging through the trees is an activity only Tarzan could feel comfortable doing.

Object of the verb:

Jemima hates swimming in the morning.

Object of a preposition:

I am really not interested in studying calculus for the rest of my life.

Participial Phrases

Participial phrases can look a lot like gerund phrases, but they don’t act like nouns; they act like adjectives.  Participles are also verb forms, just as gerunds are.  But they behave like adjectives.  Participles can take past or present forms.

Past participial phrases:

Parked in a loading zone, mom’s car was demolished by a delivery truck.

Although “parked in a loading zone” might look like a verb phrase, it’s really acting like an adjective, describing “mom’s car.”  The VERB in the sentence is “was demolished.”

Exhausted from the battery of standardized tests, Jim collapsed in front of the TV after school.

Eliza, elated by the prospect of going to the prom with Poindexter, began designing her corsage.

Present participial phrases:

Swinging through the trees, Tarzan sped through the jungle to rescue Jane.

Munching the delightful fresh apricots, Jennifer read War and Peace in the orchard.

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitive phrases are easy to spot.  They always start with the word “to” plus a verb; for example, “to swim,”  “to love,”  “to quit,” “to ride,” etc. The word “to” plus a verb is called an infinitive.   Infinitive phrases include the infinitive and any words or phrases that modify the infinitive.  Infinitive phrases act like nouns.  They usually don’t serve as the objects of prepositions, though they often act as subjects of sentences and objects of verbs.

Examples:  

To swim in the sunshine is one of the pleasures of summer vacation.

In this case, the infinitive phrase serves as the subject of the sentence.

In the summer, I love to swim in the sunshine.

In this case, the infinitive phrase is the direct object of the verb.  What do you love?  I love this thing:  to swim in the sunshine.

Absolute Phrases

An absolute phrase is composed of a noun plus an adjective or a participle, plus any modifiers that describe the noun or adjective.  An absolute phrase is really a tool of concision, allowing the writer to embed a full thought into a phrase that is almost a clause. Basically, to make the absolute phrase, the writer just removes a “to be” verb from the clause.

Example:

Two independent clauses:  “Her expression was dejected.  Sarah trudged into the room.”

One of the clauses compressed into an absolute phrase:  “Her expression dejected, Sarah trudged into the room.”

His face was red with embarrassment.  Henry withdrew from the room

His face red with embarrassment, Henry withdrew from the room.

Her eyes were shining with delight.  Polly opened the gift.

Polly, her eyes shining with delight, opened the gift.

One of the best ways to use absolute phrases is in triads, or groups of three.  Observe the following examples:

Its tiny wings outstretched, its little voice peeping urgently, its orange feet pattering through the muddy grass, the baby duck ran toward its mother.

Created by Lynne Weber Schwartz with St. Mark’s School in Dallas, Texas. Accessed 21 June 2017. Digital Handout.