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.


Noun Phrase*

A noun phrase comprises a noun and any associated modifiers:

  • The long and winding road
  • A noun phrase
  • 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”). 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 italics),

  • Several accidents have been reported involving passengers falling from trains.

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 italicized part of the phrase to the end puts additional emphasis on that part. Here are some other examples:

  • A rumor circulated among the staff that he was being promoted to Chief Executive Officer. (instead of “A rumor that he was being promoted to Chief Executive Officer circulated among the staff.”)
  • 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 faulty.”)
  • 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:

  • The story is told that he was once a soldier in French Foreign Legion.

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.

* From A Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group: London. 1978.


Appositive Phrase

An appositive is a re-naming or amplification of a word that immediately precedes it. Frequently another kind of phrase will serve in apposition.

Noun Phrase as Appositive

My favorite teacher, a fine chess player in her own right, has won several state-level tournaments.

Gerund Phrase as Appositive

The best exercise, walking briskly, is also the least expensive.

Infinitive Phrase as Appositive

Tashonda’s goal in life, to become an occupational therapist, is within her grasp this year, at last.


Gerund Phrase

Gerunds are verbals that end in -ing and act as nouns. Gerund phrases function as units and can do anything that a noun can do. Other phrases, especially prepositional phrases, are frequently part of the gerund phrase.

Gerund Phrase as Subject

Cramming for tests is not a good study strategy.

Gerund Phrase as Object

John enjoyed swimming in the lake after dark.

Gerund Phrase as Object of the Preposition In

I’m really not interested in studying biochemistry for the rest of my life.


Prepositional Phrase

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. Prepositional phrases indicate time, place, direction, quantity, manner, or cause. Consider the examples below (the prepositional phrases are in italics):

  • She will catch the bus in forty minutes.
  • In the sun, the t-shirt looked blue.
  • The ladder was propped up against the side of the barn.
  • Sandy is studying for her final test.

As in the second example above, a prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence constitutes an introductory modifier, which is usually a signal for a comma. While you can get away with not using a comma with shorter introductory prepositional phrases, you should always include one with unusually long introductory phrases. Consider the example below:

  • Under the ever-watchful eye of the school’s fourth, and unbeknownst to anyone, final head mistress, the students filed out of the auditorium.


Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

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?”

Ending with Preposition

There are many factors to base your decision on.


There are many factors on which to base your decision.


Prepositional Clutter

Overuse of prepositional phrases can lead to prepositional clutter, or sentences that are awkward and clumsy because they contain too many, unnecessary words. Consider the example below:

Prepositional Clutter

On the basis of the previous ruling, the judge will make a decision in order to end the trial.


The judge will make a decision based on a previous ruling, and this will end the trial.

Prepositional Clutter

For the purposes of consistency, we should use the same verb tense throughout.


To be consistent, we should use the same verb tense throughout.

Consider avoiding some of the following prepositional phrases when they do not really add meaning to the sentence:

  • In order to
  • For the purposes of
  • Due to the fact that
  • In regard to
  • With regard to
  • With the purpose of
  • In light of the fact that


Absolute Phrase

An absolute phrase 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 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 (or a pair of dashes). Notice that absolute phrases contain a subject (which is often modified by a participle), but not a finite verb.

  • Their reputation as winners secured by victory, the Carleton Ravens charged into the semi-finals.

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.

  • The season [being] over, they were tired but very pleased with their achievement.

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 added to a sentence in the form of an absolute phrase:

  • The new recruits stood in one corner of the gym, their uniforms stiff and ill fitting, their faces betraying their anxiety.

It might be useful to review the material on dangling modifiers because it is important not to confuse an absolute phrase with a misplaced modifier.