A phrase is a group of words that are grammatically connected so that they stay together, and that expand a single word, called the Head. The phrase is a noun phrase if its Head is a noun, a preposition phrase if its Head is a preposition, and so on; but if the Head is a verb, the phrase is called a clause. Phrases can be made up of other phrases.

  • She waved to her mother. [a noun phrase, with the noun mother as its Head]
  • She waved to her mother. [a preposition phrase, with the preposition to as its Head]
  • She waved to her mother. [a clause, with the verb waved as its Head]

We distinguish noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, prepositional phrases and adverb phrases (though note that the term ‘verb phrase’ is not used in the National Curriculum). You can think of the Head of a phrase as the most important element that tells you what the phrase is a 'kind of'. For example, a neighbour from hell is a kind of neighbour, and an unbelievably weird story is a kind of story. Phrases may include other elements which function as Modifier of the Head. For example, in the phrases above from hell and unbelievably weird are Modifiers.

Note: the National Curriculum does not regard single words as phrases, so that in Cats hate dogs, both cats and dogs are simply nouns, not noun phrases, and in I am happy, happy is an adjective, not an adjective phrase. The programme specifications state that: "

The National Curriculum refers to 'clauses' as a type of 'phrase'. This may at first seem a little bit puzzling, but if you think of a clause as a grouping of words whose pivotal element (i.e. Head) is a verb, then it begins to makes sense. Some grammarians prefer to distinguish between 'verb phrases', which do not include a Subject, and 'clauses', which do include a Subject.


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