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. 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 adjectibve, 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.

Noun phrase competition

Creating longer (expanded) noun phrases

Noun phrases can be of any length, from one word to very many words. This activity is a team competition where students' goal is to score as many points as they can by creating longer and longer noun phrases. As they do this, they will implicitly rely on their knowledge of grammar, and they will begin to see a range of different ways to expand noun phrases.

Phrase types: Snap

This is a simple game based on the idea of ‘Snap!’ in which you have to match up phrases with other phrases of the same type. The game can be played in class with cards. To print off your own sheet of snap cards to play in class, click on the downloadable handout below. Then print and cut out the cards. Pairs of students turn over one card at a time, and if they each put down a phrase of the same type, they call 'Snap'. The first to call 'Snap' wins the pile of cards. Play continues until one player holds all the cards.

Ambiguity and headlines

Newspaper headlines often compress sequences of actions into very compact structures. Sometimes the meaning becomes ambiguous as a result.

Ambiguity and headlines: Activity

Police chase driver in hospital

Violinist linked to Japan Airlines crash blossoms

BT ducks break-up with price cuts

Reagan wins on budget, but more lies ahead

Juvenile court to try shooting defendant

Phrases: coordination

In this activity, students look at phrases conjoined by coordinating conjunctions.


  • Identify different types of phrases which have been conjoined with coordinating conjunctions.
  • Consider the effect of conjoining more than one phrase.
  • Consider the effect of omitting coordinating conjunctions.

Lesson plan

Click on the interactive whiteboard icon (top right) and work through the following slides with students.

Identify the adjective phrase Head

Find the Head word (the most pivotal word) of each highlighted phrase

In each example an adjective phrase is marked in square brackets. Identify the Head word of each phrase by clicking on it.

Identify the noun phrase Head

Find the Head word (the most pivotal word) of each highlighted phrase

Identify the Head in each of the following bracketed noun phrases.

Identify the type of phrase

Identify the type of phrase (noun phrase, preposition phrase, etc.) in each of the examples. Although we have included verb phrases as an option, remember that the National Curriculum calls these clauses.


Identify the verb phrase Head

Identify the Head in each of the following bracketed verb phrases. Click on the word (or words) that comprise the Head of each verb phrase to select or deselect them.

Remember that the National Curriculum refers to verb phrases as clauses.


Adjective phrases

An adjective phrase is a phrase whose Head word is an adjective. As with other phrases adjective phrases can consist of only one word (the Head) or of more than one word.

Note that the National Curriculum stipulates that phrases should have at least two words, though it concedes in the Glossary entry for noun phrases that "Some grammarians recognise one-word phrases."

Here are some examples of adjective phrases in sentences. The phrases are marked in square brackets and the Head is highlighted.

Adverb phrases

An adverb phrase is a phrase with an adverb as the Head word. The Head adverb can occur alone or with modifiers, i.e. other words which expand the phrase, for example:

Modifiers in phrases

The term modifier is a function label that is used for words or phrases that modify the Head of a phrase. Put differently: a modifier gives more information about the Head; it makes its meaning more specific.

All phrase types can contain modifiers. Here are some examples:

Noun phrase modifiers:

  • big issues
  • small painting
  • very nice passages

Verb phrase modifiers:

Noun phrases

Noun phrases are phrases which have as their Head word a noun or pronoun.


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