Clause or phrase? (Are they really different?)

English is weird. Grammar helps. Sometimes as English-as-first-language speakers we forget that our language has names for things (and that those things can be complicated). Take for instance a clause and a phrase. For most people, these distinctions are confusing, or unheard of. I’m here to share my knowledge, and hopefully give you something to think about in your writing. Prepare for a long, nerded-out post!

A CLAUSE wears a few hats, and other labels: fragments, sentences, independent, and subordinate. So what are the commonalities of all of these labels? Easy: a clause includes a subject and a verb.

Examples of clauses:

  • After she ran errands. Here we have a fragment/subordinate/dependent clause. This clause contains a subject (she) and a verb (ran), but it doesn’t make sense, so it’s not a complete sentence. If we added an independent clause either before or after this clause, this clause would become a complex sentence (has an independent and subordinate clause).
  • I can’t believe it’s snowing again! This clause is an independent clause, or complete sentence, because it has a subject (I) and a verb (believe). And unlike the above sentence, this one makes sense: the thought is complete.
  • Stop yelling at me! This is another independent clause (complete sentence). It has an implied subject (you) and a verb (yelling). Fun facts: In this clause me is an object, not a subject, and this type of sentence is called an imperative sentence.
  • Even if they end up winning the game. Here we have a subordinate clause, or a sentence fragment. We have a subject (they) and a verb (winning), but the sentence isn’t complete.

So clauses are what we are probably most comfortable and familiar with. There are clear ingredients to a clause, which make them easy to identify. But what about phrases? What are they and how are they different?

PHRASES. Phrases are more complex, but simply, they are clauses without either a subject or a verb (or neither one). Phrases are the building blocks of sentences. Sometimes they are essential (add a verb or subject into a sentence), or they provide a way to deliver extra information. The types and examples of phrases below will take you into the secret world of writing and grammar. And these are by no means the exhaustive list of phrases…I’m just going into a few different kinds.

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Noun Phrases. These phrases are parts of sentences that include and describe a noun or pronoun.

  • The new apartment complex… This phrase revolves around the apartment complex, and the modification that the apartment complex is new. The new apartment complex went up fast.
  • The neighbourhood dogs… This phrase describes the type of dog (noun). The neighbourhood dogs barked when the ice cream truck arrived.
  • A brand new dream… This phrase shows that the dream (noun) is new. I had to build a brand new dream.

Verb Phrases. These phrases include verbs that work together, and their modifiers.

  • Will connect… Both verbs together create this phrase. I will connect with you at the next meet-up.
  • Was left waiting… Again, the verbs work together here. She was left waiting for the bus to come.
  • Has never visited… Here we have an adverb (modifying the verb visit) that is part of the verb phrase. My aunt has never visited our new house.

Prepositional phrases. These phrases include a preposition and a noun or pronoun that becomes the object of the preposition. Prepositional phrases can be more complex, and really deserve their own blog post. But that’s for another time.

  • Despite the weather… The preposition is despite and the weather is the object of the preposition. Despite the weather, we played on.
  • For a while… The preposition is for and the noun is a while. I played baseball for a while.

GERUND phrases. These phrases include a gerund (a noun made from using a verb plus -ing) and the objects or modifiers that go with the gerund. Gerund phrases act like a noun, but aren’t technically a noun phrase, but gerund phrases becomes a subject or object within a sentence. Lastly, don’t confuse a gerund phrase with a participle phrase.

  • Biking… Bike + -ing. Biking is a healthy way to get to work. Biking here isn’t a verb, but a noun. The gerund is a thing and not an action.
  • Reading… I couldn’t last a day without reading.
  • Dreaming… My teacher said that dreaming won’t get you anywhere: you have to act.

pARTICIPal phrases. Here’s another phrase group that deserves its own blog post, but here’s the gist. A participle phrase is placed close to a noun to modify that noun. You can use either the present or past of a word to create participial phrases.

  • Removing her hat… Removing is the participle, and her hat is the direct object of action that is described by the participle removing. Removing her hat, Karen entered the sacred space with awe.
  • …walking down the street. Walking is the participle, and down the street is a prepositional phrase that modifies and acts as an adverb. Farhan saw his friend walking down the street.

Infinitive phrases. Infinitives are made by adding to + a verb. To talk, to walk, to call, to answer. They can become either subjects or objects in the sentence. And once again, this is the basic explanation. Infinitive phrases can also be adjectives or adverbs within a sentence.

  • To work on a cruise ship… Here we have the infinitive phrase (to work…) acting as the subject. To work on a cruise ship was her biggest life goal.
  • to eat healthy… Here we have the infinitive phrases acting as an object. She tried to eat healthy during stressful weeks at work.
  • to read at night… Here we have the infinitive phrase working as an adjective. Her favourite book to read at night was the book about dogs planting trees in the garden.
  • to train… Here we have the infinitive phrase working as an adverb. Sara is biking at least 25 km a day to train for her upcoming competition.

Absolute phrases. These phrases work with commas and modify the entire sentence, but aren’t really needed in the sentence. Absolute phrases provide extra information for the readers. There are two types of absolute phrases: one that identifies a reason, cause or condition; and one that add details or provides extra explanations for readers.

  • The rain coming in… The phrase the rain coming in can’t stand alone as a sentence and modifies the entire complete clause. The rain coming in, beachgoers rushed to pack up their gear. If we added words, like Because of the rain coming in, suddenly it’s not an absolute phrase anymore but a preposition phrase.
  • Her hair wind-blown and messy… Again, the phrase can’t stand along as a sentence and the phrase modifies the complete clause that follow. Her hair wind-blown and messy, she knew she looked worse for wear.

If you’ve continued to read along this far, perhaps you’re just as nerdy as some of the rest of us! It’s fun to have names and a vocabulary to talk about language. It makes it more accessible. I enjoy looking at sentences once in a while and trying to identify what it contains, kind of like how I enjoy crossword puzzles. Once you have the vocabulary, things open up in a wonderful and fun and nerdy way.

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