28) Phrases in detail

Phrases

Now we have covered all the parts of speech, let’s go over each again but looking at the phrases in more detail. This will allow us to revise everything we have already learnt, and the analysis should make more sense now we have a better grasp of the word classes.

As a reminder, phrases are groups of two, or more, words, which don’t have both a subject and a verb, and, consequently, can’t convey a complete thought.

1) Noun phrases

A noun phrase is two or more words which work together as a noun, but do not have both a subject and a predicate together, or, in other words, a subject-verb relationship, so are unable to convey a full thought. For example:

Person: John Smith

Animal: The lion

Place: The United States Of America

Thing: The turnip

Quality: The condescension

State: The anger

Action: The Laugher (note: ‘laughed’ will often be a verb, but actually naming the process is ‘laughter’ and this is most often a noun)

There are some common constructions seen with noun phrases that we will explore now.

1.1 Common constructions

Names with multiple words

A simple kind of noun phrase is a name with multiple words. For example:

John Maynard Keynes was an influential economist.

Here we have the noun phrase ‘John Maynard Keynes’ which comprises entirely of a subject, but has no predicate. Consequently, by itself, it cannot express a complete thought. It is a noun because it is naming a person, and a phrase because it has more than one word, but no subject-verb relationship. We can test it is a noun by replacing it with a known noun, or pronoun as in:

John was an influential economist.

He was an influential economist.

Nouns with an article before them

One very common type of noun phrase involves adding the define article ‘the’ or the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of it. For example:

The bear is charging towards us.

Here, the noun phrase ‘the bear’ is naming an animal. We can also tell it is a noun because it is the subject of the sentence. Most pertinently, we can tell it is a noun because it has the definite article ‘the’ in front of it. As we discovered earlier, the definite article’s role is to identify a specific version of whatever noun it is attached to. Let’s try replacing it with a pronoun to check we are right:

It is charging towards us.

Now let’s look at an example of the indefinite article:

A snowflake just blew into my eye.

Here, the noun phrase ‘a snowflake’ is naming a thing. We can also tell it is a noun because it is the subject of the sentence. Again though, we can tell it is a noun because it has an indefinite article in front of it. As we found out earlier, the role of the indefinite article is to identify a non-specific version of whatever noun is attached to it. Let’s try replacing it with a pronoun to check we are right:

It just blew into my eye.

Remember that the indefinite article is also ‘an’ when the noun begins with a vowel sound as in:

An apple just fell on my head.

Here the noun phrase is ‘an apple’, which begins with the indefinite article ‘an’. Replaced with a pronoun we have:

It just fell on my head.

Nouns with another type of adjective before them

This is similar to the above; the definite article ‘the’ and the indefinite article ‘a/an’ are both classed as adjectives because they modify nouns. Nevertheless, there are many other adjectives that can come before a noun in a noun phrase. Let’s look at some examples:

That bin is full.

Here the demonstrative adjective ‘that’ is modifying the noun ‘bin’ and working together in the noun phrase ‘that bin’ to describe a specific bin.

We can also have ordinal demonstrative adjectives, as in:

You are the first customer.

Here we have the definite article ‘the’ + ordinal demonstrative adjective ‘first’ + the noun ‘customer’ to give the noun phrase ‘the first customer’. This noun phrase is the predicate noun renaming ‘you’ via the linking verb ‘are’. It can be replaced by a pronoun, as in:

You are it.

There are also many adjectives which modify nouns by adding some attribute. This will often be in combination with ‘the’, ‘a/an’ or ‘that’ so we get:

‘the’, ‘a/an’ or ‘that’ + another adjective + a noun.

An example of this is:

The fluffy dog shed its hair everywhere.

Note how we have the definite article ‘the’ + the descriptive adjective ‘fluffy’ + the noun ‘dog’. All together, these make the noun phrase ‘the fluffy dog’, which works to name a specific dog which has fluffy fur.

Now, when it was just ‘the dog’ it seemed quite natural to call it a noun phrase. However, now that we have that adjective in there, it feels different. Should it really be called a noun phrase when it also has some adjective features in it?

We can answer this by looking at its function in the sentence. As before, it is the subject of the sentence – which is something only nouns and pronouns can be. Furthermore, it isn’t ‘the dog’ that is the subject, it is ‘the fluffy dog’. Moreover, it can be replaced by a pronoun as in:

It shed its hair everywhere.

This wouldn’t be possible if it was an adjective. We can have even more than one adjective if we like, just to get used to longer noun phrases, as in:

An ancient, dirty, smelly, rusty, cumbersome truck just broke down outside my house.

Here we have the definite article ‘an’ + a whole list of descriptive adjectives + the noun ‘truck’ working together to make a noun phrase. Again, all of this is the subject, and it can be replaced by a pronoun:

It just broke down outside my house.

The fact we can have adjectives in these phrases also suggests we will be able to have adverbs because adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Let’s try that:

A very big storm just tore my roof off.

Here we have the indefinite article ‘a’ + the adverb of degree ‘very’ + the descriptive adjective ‘big’ + the noun ‘storm’ combining to create the noun phrase:

A very big storm.

To clarify, the adverb ‘very’ is modifying the adjective ‘big’. In fact, if there wasn’t an adjective we wouldn’t be able to have an adverb. Something like:

A very storm. (incorrect)

wouldn’t work; the adverb needs either a verb, adjective, or other adverb to modify.

So, we’ve seen an adverb can modify an adjective in a noun phrase. There could also be a second adverb, as in:

An unbelievably massively big storm just tore off my roof.

Here we have the indefinite article ‘an’ + the adverb of degree ‘unbelievably’ + the second adverb of degree ‘massively’ + the descriptive adjective ‘big’ + the noun ‘storm’. Note how it still works with a pronoun replacement:

It just tore off my roof.

Possessive nouns and pronouns before a noun in a noun phrase

If the subject being talked about is owned by someone, or something, then we can use a possessive noun, or a possessive pronoun (which doubles as a possessive adjective). Let’s look at some examples of possessive nouns first:

John’s garden has foxes living in it.

Here we have the possessive noun ‘John’s’ + the noun ‘garden’ giving us the noun phrase ‘John’s garden’. This lets us know the garden being talked about belongs to John. It can be replaced by a pronoun, like so:

It has foxes living in it.

Another example is:

The computer’s hard drive is full.

Here we have the definite article ‘The’ + the possessive noun ‘computer’s’ + the compound noun ‘hard drive’. It can be replaced by a pronoun as in:

It is full.

There are also possessive pronouns which can come before nouns in noun phrases. For example:

His shoes are stupidly expensive.

Here we have the possessive pronoun ‘his’ + the noun ‘shoes’ to give us the noun phrase ‘His shoes’. It can be replaced by a pronoun, as in:

They are stupidly expensive.

Another example is:

Our local newspaper is free.

Here we have the possessive pronoun ‘our’ + the descriptive adjective ‘local’ + the noun ‘newspaper’ to give the noun phrase ‘our local newspaper’. This can be replaced by a pronoun:

It is free.

As we saw earlier, the possessive pronouns are often thought of as both pronouns and adjectives because they replace a noun (pronoun) and modify a noun (adjective). Actually, if you think about it, there is an adjective like quality to the possessive nouns too because they also modify a noun, as in:

John’s hat

where the possessive noun ‘John’ is modifying the noun ‘hat’, as well as having the noun quality of naming a person.

Prepositions after nouns in noun phrases

Prepositions link words together, and usually link some word with a noun, or pronoun. We won’t usually see a single preposition alone after a noun in a noun phrase because the preposition wouldn’t be linking to anything. For example:

The book on is the best. (incorrect)

‘The book on’ what? However, when we turn the single preposition into a phrase by adding other words, this becomes a common part of noun phrases. Prepositional phrases will usually have a preposition + a noun or pronoun as in:

The book on top is the best.

Here we have the definite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘book’ + the prepositional phrase ‘on top’ to give us the noun phrase ‘the book on top’. Notice that the prepositional phrase is made up of the preposition ‘on’ and the noun ‘top’. Also notice that the prepositional phrase is working as an adjective, modifying the noun phrase ‘the book’. The noun phrase ‘the book on top’ can be replaced with a pronoun, as in:

That is the best.

A more complicated example would be:

The service from the library in town is the best.

Here we have the definite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘service’ + the prepositional phrase ‘from the library in town’ to create the noun phrase ‘the service from the library in town’. This can be replaced by a pronoun:

It is the best.

This one is more complicated because the prepositional phrase ‘from the library in town’ has a noun phrase within it. In this way the preposition ‘from’ is linking the noun phrase ‘the service’ with the noun phrase ‘the library in town’. We could even break that down further because ‘the library in town’ contains the noun phrase ‘the library’ which is being linked to the noun ‘town’ by the preposition ‘in’. This sort of thing is why I left it till last to go into detail into phrases. Don’t worry if you get confused; you aren’t alone!

Participles after nouns in noun phrases

There are many examples of participle phrases after nouns in noun phrases. Participle phrases are phrases which begin with a participle. The two types of relevance are past and present participles. Let’s look at some past participle examples first.

a) Past participles after nouns in noun phrases

Past participles take the base verb form and usually added’, ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘en’, or ‘n’ on the end to either function as an adjective or to help form the perfect and perfect progressive tenses. For our purposes here we will look at them as adjectives, modifying the noun to become part of the noun phrase. Here is an example:

The bikes checked regularly are usually in good condition.

Here we have the definite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘bikes’ + the past participle ”checked’ + the adverb ‘regularly’ giving us the noun phrase ‘the bikes checked regularly’. Note how the past participle ‘checked’ + the adverb ‘regularly’ are working together as an adjective phrase to modify the noun phrase ‘the bikes’. So the participle phrase here is ‘checked regularly’ which is working as an adjective. It is important to stress that ‘checked’ is being used as an adjective here, not a verb. This means there is no subject-verb relationship, thus allowing this to still be a noun phrase, and not a noun clause.

We can replace with a pronoun, as in:

They are usually in good condition.

This is quite a hard one to grasp, made worse by the fact that the past participle and simple past tense of ‘check’ are both ‘checked’. We can use an irregular verb example instead to help us differentiate between the verb and past participle. For example, the past participle of ‘drive’ is ‘driven’ and the simple past tense is ‘drove’. So we could have:

The cars driven excessively are usually in bad condition.

Now we know ‘driven’ is definitely a past participle because it would be ‘drove’ if it was a simple past tense. The only question we might ask now is whether it is working to form a tense, or as an adjective. It isn’t in any of the forms that past participles usually are seen in (perfect and perfect progressive tenses), so, by the process of elimination, and what we know about past participles, this supports the contention that it is working as an adjective.

b) Present participles after nouns in noun phrases

Present participles take the base verb form and add ‘ing’ on the end to either function as an adjective or to help form the progressive and perfect progressive tenses.. For our purposes here we will look at them as adjectives modifying the noun to become part of the noun phrase. Here is an example:

The athletes breaking all the records are most likely to be accused of using steroids.

Here we have the indefinite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘athletes’ + the present participle ‘breaking’+ the adjective ‘all’ + the definite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘records’ to give the noun phrase ‘The athletes breaking all the records’. Note how the present participle ‘breaking’ + the noun phrase ‘all the records’ are working together as an adjective phrase to modify the noun phrase ‘ The athletes’. So the present participle phrase here is ‘breaking all the records’, working as an adjective. We can replace the noun phrase with a pronoun, as in:

They are most likely to be accused of using steroids.

Infinitives after nouns in noun phrases

Infinitives are forms made up of ‘to’ + the base form of the verb. They can work as verbal nouns, adjectives or adverbs. We sometimes find them at the end of sentences, as in:

She knew that this was the day to leave.

Here we have the definite article ‘the’ + the noun ‘day’ + the infinitive ‘to leave’ which is combining to create the noun phrase ‘the day to leave’. The infinitive is working as an adjective here modifying the noun phrase ‘the day’. We can replace the whole phrase with a pronoun:

She knew this was it.

1.2 Functions of noun phrases in a sentence

Now that we have seen some of the constructions that often make up noun phrases, let’s look at the functions of them in a sentence. A noun phrase can do everything a noun can do: they can be a subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition, object complement, predicate nominative/noun and an appositive. Let’s look at examples of each of this next.

Noun phrase as a subject

An example of a noun phrase as the subject of a sentence is:

The dog is happy.

Here we have the noun phrase ‘the dog’ + the linking verb ‘is’ + the predicate adjective ‘happy’. The noun phrase ‘the dog’ is the subject of this sentence. Replacing with a pronoun gives:

It is happy.

Noun phrase as a direct object

An example of a noun phrase as a direct object is:

I will definitely read the book.

Here we have the pronoun subject ‘I’ + the modal auxiliary verb ‘will’ + the adverb ‘definitely’ + the transitive main verb ‘read’ + the noun phrase direct object ‘the book’. As we said previously, we find the direct object with the following formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives us:

I will read what?

The answer is ‘the book’ – which is the direct object.

It can be replaced by a pronoun:

I will definitely read it.

Noun phrase as an indirect object

An example of a noun phrase as an indirect object is:

John gave the dog’s belly a stroke.

Here we have the subject noun ‘John’ + the verb ‘gave’ + the noun phrase ‘the dog’s belly’ + the noun phrase ‘a stroke’. To find the indirect object we have to find the direct object first, with the following formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives us:

John gave what?

Answer and direct object: ‘a stroke’

Then we find the indirect object with the following formula:

subject + verb + direct object + ‘to/for what?’ or ‘to/for whom?’

This gives us:

John gave a stroke to what?

The answer is ‘the dogs belly’ – which is the indirect object noun phrase. It can be replaced by a pronoun:

John gave it a stroke.

Noun phrase as an object of a preposition

An example of a noun phrase as the object of a preposition is:

He lives for the weekend.

Here we have the subject pronoun ‘he’ + the verb ‘lives’ + the preposition ‘for’ + the noun phrase ‘the weekend’. The prepositional phrase here is ‘for the weekend’ and the object of this prepositional phrase is the object of the preposition: the noun phrase ‘the weekend’.

It can be replaced by a pronoun:

He lives for it.

Noun phrase as an object complement

When an object complement is a noun it follows a direct object to rename it. An example of a noun phrase as an object complement is:

They considered the charlatan their spiritual saviour.

Here we have the subject pronoun ‘they’ + the verb ‘considered’ + the direct object noun phrase ‘the charlatan’ + the object complement noun phrase ‘their spiritual saviour’. Remember, we find the direct object with this formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

Which gives us:

They considered whom?

The answer is ‘the charlatan’ – the direct object. Then we can see that the noun phrase ‘their spiritual saviour’ is renaming the noun phrase ‘the charlatan’, and, therefore, working as the object complement.

It can be replaced with a pronoun:

They considered the charlatan it.

Noun phrase as a predicate nominative/noun

An example of a noun phrase as a predicate nominative/noun is:

John is the class president.

Here we have the subject noun ‘John’ + the linking verb ‘is’ + the noun phrase ‘the class president’. Here the noun phrase ‘the class president’ is the predicate noun, looping back to rename the subject ‘John’ via the linking verb ‘is’.

It can be replaced by a pronoun:

John is it.

Noun phrase as an appositive

An example of a noun phrase as an appositive is:

John, the class president, is my friend.

Here we have the noun subject ‘John’ + the noun appositive phrase ‘the class president’ + the verb ‘is’ + the predicate noun phrase ‘my friend’. The appositive phrase ‘the class president’ is renaming the subject ‘John’ here; we can see it is surrounded by commas, or in apposition, to the noun ‘John’.

We can replace it with a pronoun (though it does sound a bit strange in this example):

John, it, is my friend.

2) Verb phrases

A verb phrase is a group of words which work together as a verb. I am going to break this down into two types: the compound verbs and the verb phrases.

2.1 Compound verbs

There seem to be a number of different things attributed as compound verbs. One very common definition is a sentence which has more than one verb which works on the same subject. For example:

He draws and writes for fun.

Here we have two verbs, ‘draws’ and ‘writes’ which have the same subject ‘he’. You could rewrite it to show they have the same subject, like this:

He draws and he writes for fun.

So the compound verbs are ‘draws’ and ‘writes’. Notice, also, the conjunction ‘and’ in the middle. We can have other conjunctions to, such as ‘but’ as in:

Maria loves singing but hates painting.

Here the compound verbs ‘loves’ and ‘hates’ have the same subject ‘Maria, and are linked by the conjunction ‘but’. Note that ‘singing’ and ‘painting’ are gerunds, originating from verbal forms but acting like nouns. Again, we can check the subject is the same by adding in the subject:

Maria loves singing but Maria hates painting.

We could also think of compound verbs as the main verb in a sentence + its auxiliaries which help it, as in:

I will be happy tomorrow.

Here we have the modal auxiliary verb ‘will’ + the main verb ‘be’ creating the verb phrase ‘will be’.

2.2 Phrasal verbs

The definition of phrasal verbs appears to be contentious. Some use the term for compound verbs, while others use it for the form which has verb + an adverb, while some will use the term for what I am about to describe here. I’m using the term to describe three/four different types of verbal phrases: those which consist of:

verb + adverb (often called ‘phrasal verbs’)

verb + preposition (often called ‘prepositional verbs’)

verb + adverb + preposition (often called ‘phrasal-prepositional verbs’)

Let’s look at these three types next:

2.2.1 Verb + adverb (often called ‘phrasal verbs’)

An example of this is:

Please hold on a moment.

Here we have the verb ‘hold’ + the adverb ‘on’ to give the phrasal verb ‘hold on’. The ‘on’ in this sentence is particularly hard to explain. It is working in a way which it usually doesn’t, and is sometimes described as a particle. There are various definitions of what a particle is. It appears it was a term which was used to describe any word which doesn’t inflect in the past. However, this would involve many word types and isn’t particularly useful here. The more modern definition retains this idea of not inflecting, but also adds that they are words which have a grammatical function, but don’t fit the other parts of speech.

This is very vague. I would argue the reason it is so vague is because there is something idiomatic about them as words. What I mean by this is their meaning is hard to decipher if you aren’t familiar with the language. The reason for this is it can be hard to understand what is meant by just looking at the words without the context of the sentence, and some experience of how they are generally used. You might read that and think ‘but can’t you say that about all words?’. Let’s try to explore this a bit. Take again, the sentence:

Please hold on a moment.

If you take the phrase ‘hold on’ out of this sentence, and look at it alone, it is very different to what the meaning is in the sentence. ‘Hold on’ sounds like ‘grab that object and keep a hold of it’ when what it really means is ‘wait’. Let’s see the sentence again with ‘wait’ in there:

Please wait a moment.

Now, we could take ‘wait’ out of the sentence, look it up in the dictionary, and we get something like “to remain inactive or in a state of repose, as until something expected happens.” Therefore, we can understand what it means by the meaning of the word. But if we look up ‘hold’ and ‘on’ separately, we get something like this:

Hold: “to have or keep in the hand”

On: “so as to be or remain supported by or suspended from”

But this doesn’t tell us the correct meaning because it combines its constituent parts to create a meaning which is different to their separate meanings. We could also compare to another verb phrase such as:

David will throw the ball now.

And if we look at these two meanings separately we get:

Will: “am (is, are, etc.) about or going to”

Throw: “to propel or cast in any way, especially to project or propel from the hand by a sudden forward motion or straightening of the arm and wrist:”

We can figure out the meaning from the two separate words here because this phrase doesn’t combine the two terms to create a meaning which is different to their individual meanings.

The idiomatic nature of phrases like ‘hold on’ makes them particularly hard for foreign language speakers to learn, and for anyone looking at grammar to get a strong understanding of. Let’s look at some more examples:

Don’t hang up the phone.

Here we have the verb ‘hang’ + the particle adverb ‘up’ giving us the phrasal verb ‘hang up’. We can write this another way as in:

Don’t end the phone call.

To add another layer of confusion to the picture, ‘hang up’ can also mean to literally hang something up as in:

Hang up the painting over there.

This is a more literal use of the two words.

We can also have a look at the relationship of the phrasal verb with the objects in the sentence. If the object is not a personal pronoun, the particle can come before, or after, the object. For example:

Before the object: Look up the score.

After the object: Look the score up.

In these examples, the object is ‘the score’ and the phrasal verb is ‘look up’ with the adverb particle being ‘up’. In the first example, ‘look up the score’, we see the particle ‘up’ before the object ‘the score’. In contrast, in the second example, ‘look the score up’, the particle ‘up’ is after the object ‘the score’.

As noted a moment ago though, when the object is a personal pronoun, we put the object before the particle, as in:

Don’t let me down.

Here, the verbal phrase is ‘let down’ and the object is the personal pronoun ‘me’. As we can see the particle ‘down’ comes after the object ‘me’. If we try it the other way, it sounds wrong:

Don’t let down me.

The Beatles’ hit wouldn’t sound quite right like that, would it?

There is also some disparity between whether phrasal verbs can be broken up or not. For example, take a look at:

They asked around everyone they knew in the area.

We don’t normally put a word in the middle of ‘asked around’; however, we can with:

Don’t let me/her/him/them down.

This sort of thing can be seen in some dictionaries. For example, if you typed in ‘let down’ into this dictionary you get

“let sb down”

In this case the ‘sb’ stands for ‘somebody’ as in:

let me/her/him/them down.

You can also get a definition like this:

“let sth down”

In this case the ‘sth’ stands for ‘something’ as in:

let the balloon down.

Here ‘the balloon’ is the something being let down, but it could be anything that fits as a ‘something’.

In contrast, if you put in ‘asked around’ you simply get:

asked around

Notice there is no ‘sb’ or ‘sth’ because you cannot put something in the middle of ‘asked around’.

2.2.2 Verb + preposition (often called ‘prepositional verbs’)

Prepositional verbs are very similar to phrasal verbs, but instead of verb + adverb they have verb + preposition. For example:

You can count on me to save the day.

Here we have the verb ‘count’ + the preposition ‘on’ giving the prepositional phrase ‘count on’. This time it is the preposition ‘on’ which is sometimes described as a particle. Again, it is because of the idiomatic nature of the phrase. Let’s explore that by looking at the definitions of the two words separately:

Count: “to check over (the separate units or groups of a collection) one by one to determine the total number”

on: “so as to be or remain supported by or suspended from”

Again, these two don’t really make sense when looked at separately.

Direct objects in prepositional verbs

Prepositional verbs will always have a direct object after the preposition, which can be either a noun, pronoun, gerund or present participle. Let’s look at some examples:

Noun: Jane believes in friendship.

Here we have the verb ‘believes’ + the preposition ‘in’, to make the prepositional verb phrase ‘believes in’, + the direct object noun ‘friendship’.

Pronoun: You can count on me to save the day.

Here we have the verb ‘count’ + the preposition ‘on, to make the prepositional verb ‘count on’, + the direct object pronoun ‘me’.

Gerund: John dreams of flying.

Here we have the verb ‘dreams’ + the preposition ‘of’, to make the prepositional verb ‘dreams of’, + the direct object gerund ‘flying’. This is a gerund because it is a verbal ‘ing’ form working as a noun.

Present participle: Ben objects to playing football.

Here we have the verb ‘objects’ + the preposition ‘to’, to make the prepositional verb phrase ‘objects to’, + the direct object present participle led phrase ‘playing football’. Note how the present participle ‘playing’ is used as an adjective to the noun ‘football’.

One major difference between verb + adverb constructions and verb + preposition constructions is that verb + preposition constructions must have an object after the preposition, whereas this isn’t the case for verb + adverb forms. If we take the aforementioned examples and get rid of the object after the preposition, we end up with nonsensical sentences, as in:

Jane believes in friendship.

Jane believes in. (incorrect)

You can count on me to save the day.

You can count on to save the day. (incorrect)

John dreams of flying.

John dreams of. (incorrect)

Ben objects to playing football.

Ben objects to. (incorrect)

This also means that we can’t split up prepositional verbs like we can phrasal verbs. For example, take:

You can count on me.

You can’t have the object ‘me’ in between, as in:

You can count me on. (incorrect)

This is because, as we just saw, prepositional verbs need an object after them. If we then go back to an earlier example we looked at in phrasal verbs, this will remind us that some phrasal verbs are able to do split like this:

Don’t look up the score.

Don’t look the score up.  

We can see here that the direct object ‘the score’ can go in between ‘look’ and ‘up’ here and still be correct. This is an important difference to remember between phrasal verbs (verb + adverb) and prepositional verbs (verb + preposition).

2.2.3 Verb + adverb + preposition (often known as ‘phrasal-prepositional verbs’)

We can combine the previous two examples to get phrasal-prepositional phrases. As a reminder, the verb + adverb form is often called ‘phrasal verbs’ and the verb + preposition form is often called ‘prepositional verbs’. Consequently, the verb + adverb + preposition form is often called ‘phrasal-prepositional verbs’. Let’s look at an example:

You will just have to put up with it.

Here we have the verb ‘put’ + the adverb ‘up’ + the preposition ‘with’ to give the phrasal-prepositional verb phrase ‘put up with’. As before, these are idiomatic expressions, which we can’t understand by looking at the definitions separately:

Put: “to move something or someone into the stated place, position, or direction.”

Up: “toward a higher position, or toward a higher value, number, or level.”

With: “used of people or things that are together or doing something together:”

It would be hard to guess that what is really meant by ‘put up with’ is actually ‘to tolerate’.

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are often quite informal, so replacing them with terms like ‘to tolerate’ is probably more appropriate in formal situations.

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are similar to prepositional verbs, and different to phrasal verbs, in that they must have an object at the end, and therefore can’t be split. So, for example, if we take:

You will just have to put up with it.

We can’t take the object ‘it’ and split up the phrase, as in:

You will just have to put up it with (incorrect)

3) Adjective phrases

Adjectives are words which modify nouns. Therefore, an adjective phrase is a group of two, or more, words, which doesn’t have a subject-verb relationship, and modifies a noun. Adjective phrases are either attributive, or predicative. Let’s look at these two types next:

3.1 Attributive adjective phrases

The important thing to remember about attributive adjective phrases is that they are placed adjacent to the noun, or noun phrase, that they modify. This means the adjective phrase and the modified noun are adjacent to each other, making one singular noun phrase where the words are all in one single row. Let’s look at an example to clarify what that means:

The painfully long speech had no points worth remembering.

Here we have the adjective phrase ‘the painfully long’ modifying the noun ‘speech’ to give us the noun phrase ‘The painfully long speech’. As we can see, the adjective phrase (‘the painfully long’) is adjacent to the noun ‘speech’ which it is modifying. This modification links the adjective phrase and the noun together to give a noun phrase (‘the painfully long speech’), where all of the words are adjacent to each other in a row to create a single noun phrase; this is what is meant by an attributive adjective. If this isn’t clear, we can try replacing the noun phrase ‘the painfully long speech’ with a pronoun, to highlight that the adjective phrase ‘the painfully long’ is a part of it:

It had no points worth remembering.

Furthermore, if it isn’t clear that ‘the painfully long’ is modifying ‘speech’ we could try replacing it with another adjective. However, we would need to keep the definite article ‘the’ because the rest of the sentence agrees with this. So, we get:

The pointless speech had no points worth remembering.

That works nicely.

The other thing worth looking at is the words within the adjective phrase. Let’s write it out again:

The painfully long speech had no points worth remembering.

The adjective phrase ‘the painfully long’ is made of the the definite article ‘the’ + the adverb ‘painfully’ + the adjective ‘long’. Adjective phrases will always have at least one adjective like this, but will often be surrounded by other word types such as articles (which are a form of adjective) adverbs (which modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs), nouns and prepositions.

Let’s modify the example so that the adjective phrase comes after the noun, but is still within the noun phrase:

The speech, painfully long in duration, had no points worth remembering.

Here we have the adjective phrase ‘painfully long in duration’ modifying the noun phrase ‘the speech’ to give us the longer noun phrase ‘The speech, painfully long in duration,’. As we can see, the adjective phrase (‘painfully long in duration’) is directly adjacent to the noun phrase ‘the speech’ that it is modifying, allowing it to create the full noun phrase (‘the speech, painfully long in duration’). If that isn’t clear, let’s try replacing the whole noun phrase with a pronoun:

It had no points worth remembering.

Next up, let’s have a break down of the words in the adjective phrase, to see the sort of constructions they can be made up of:

The speech, painfully long in duration, had no points worth remembering.

In the adjective phrase ‘painfully long in duration’ we have the adverb ‘painfully’, the adjective ‘long’, the preposition ‘in’ and the noun ‘duration’ combining to give ‘the speech’ this extra attribute.

3.2 Predicate adjective phrases

On the contrary to attributive adjective phrases, predicate adjective phrases are not adjacent with the noun, or noun phrase, that they modify. Instead, they have at least a linking verb, such as ‘is’, in between, which links the adjective phrase back to the noun. We looked at this earlier with predicate adjectives. Here is an example:

The national park is extremely beautiful.

Here we have the noun phrase ‘the national park’ + the linking verb ‘is’ + the adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful’. The adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful’ is linking back to modify the noun phrase ‘the national park’ via the linking verb ‘is’. Note that the adjective phrase (‘extremely beautiful’) is not directly adjacent to the noun phrase (‘the national park’) – it has the linking verb ‘is’ interrupting it. This is the difference between predicate adjective phrases and attributive ones. To show my point, let’s compare this with a similar attributive adjective phrase:

I visited the extremely beautiful national park.

Note how the adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful’ is directly adjacent to the noun phrase ‘national park’ now? Actually, I would place ‘the’ as part of the attributive adjective now, meaning the adjective phrase ‘the extremely beautiful’ is modifying the noun phrase ‘national park’.

Hopefully you can see that these two types of adjective phrases are very similar; it is just a matter of the way they are structured in the sentence. To try to clarify it further, there isn’t really much difference in the meaning between this sentence:

The national park is extremely beautiful.

And this phrase:

the extremely beautiful national park

If we break down the words in the original phrase we have the adverb ‘extremely’ and the adjective ‘beautiful’. The main adjective in this phrase is ‘beautiful’, and it appears at the end. Let’s look at another example where the main adjective is in a different place within the adjective phrase:

The national park is extremely beautiful in spring.

Here we have the adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful in spring’ modifying the noun phrase ‘the national park’. Note that the adjective phrase (‘extremely beautiful in spring’) is not directly adjacent to the noun phrase (‘the national park’) because it has the linking verb ‘is’ in between it – making it a predicative adjective phrase. Also note that we have added the prepositional phrase ‘in spring’ on to the end of the adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful’ to create the larger adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful in spring’. The prepositional phrase ‘in spring’ is actually working as an adverb to modify the adjective phrase ‘extremely beautiful’. To clarify, we have a prepositional phrase (‘in spring’) modifying an adjective phrase (‘extremely beautiful’), and these both combining to create a larger adjective phrase (‘extremely beautiful in spring’). Then, this larger adjective phrase (‘extremely beautiful in spring’) is modifying the noun phrase ‘the national park’.

We can actually break down the words in the phrase even further than this. We have the adverb ‘extremely’, the adjective ‘beautifully’ the preposition ‘in’ and the noun ‘spring’. This combination of different word classes linking together to create phrases, and then these phrases linking together to create larger phrases is one of the things that makes understanding phrases really difficult. Nevertheless, we shall persevere!

Other types of phrases that work as adjective phrases

There are a number of other types of phrases that can work as adjectives by modifying nouns. These are prepositional, past participle, present participle and infinitive phrases. We look at them shortly.

4) Verbal phrases

4.1 Participle phrases

Participle phrases are phrases which have a participle in them – usually at the beginning – and work as adjectives, to modify a noun. As we have seen before, there are two types of participles: present and past

4.1.1 Present participle phrases

Present participles take the base verb form then add ‘ing’ to the end to form an adjective, or help form the progressive, and perfect progressive, tenses. Present participle phrases begin with such a present participle then have one, or more, other words and work as an adjective to modify a noun. For example:

Running for cover, the boy tripped and hurt his ankle.

Here we have the present participle phrase ‘running for cover’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘the boy’. Note that the present participle ‘running’ is at the beginning of the phrase – as appears to be the case for the majority of present participle phrases. It is made up of the present participle ‘running’ + the preposition ‘for’ + the noun ‘cover’. The phrase also comes before the noun phrase in this situation, but it can be switched around, as in:

The boy running for cover tripped and hurt his ankle.

or

Nobody noticed the boy running for cover.

Dangling modifiers

One mistake easily made with present participle phrases is known as a dangling modifier. This is when the present participle phrase does not have anything to modify, meaning it is dangling over the edge with nothing to connect to. For example:

Running for cover, the obstacles were dodged with remarkable agility. (incorrect)

Here we have the present participle phrase ‘running for cover’ – but it is not modifying a noun. Perhaps this occurs because the writer feels the subject is inherently understood. The thing is, the present participle phrase ‘running for cover’ kind of implies a subject in the sense that the subject must be something that can run for cover. In the writer’s head the actual subject will be more clear, so he might miss it out thinking it is obvious. Whatever the reason for making the mistake, we can rectify it by adding a subject, as in:

Running for cover, the boy dodged the obstacles with remarkable agility.

Here we have the present participle ‘running for cover’ modifying the noun phrase ‘the boy’. This is much clearer. I also had to add in the verb ‘dodged’ so the subject had a verb to create a subject-verb relationship – something needed for a full sentence.

4.1.2 Past participle phrases

Past participles take the base verb form of the verb, and form an adjective by adding ‘ed’, when the verb is regular, and various other forms, when not. They work as adjectives, modifying nouns, and to help form the perfect and perfect progressive tenses. Past participle phrases often – but not always – start with such a past participle, working together as an adjective. For example:

He is a man destroyed by jealously.

Here we have the past participle phrase ‘destroyed by jealously’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘a man’. The past participle phrase has the past participle ‘destroyed’ + the preposition ‘by’ + the noun ‘jealously’. This past participle phrase starts with a past participle, but this isn’t always the case. For example:

Completely frozen, the turkey would never be ready in time.

Here we have the past participle phrase ‘completely frozen’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘the turkey’. The past participle phrase is made up of the adverb ‘completely’ and the past participle ‘frozen’.

Dangling modifiers

One mistake that can easily be made with past participle phrases is to have a dangling modifier. As before, this is when the past participle phrase does not have anything to modify, meaning it is dangling over the edge with nothing to connect to. For example:

Lied to repeatedly, moving jobs was the only option.

Here we have the past participle phrase ‘lied to repeatedly’ which has nothing to modify. It isn’t ‘moving jobs’ which have been ‘lied to repeatedly; nor is it ‘the only other option’. The past participle phrase is left dangling, with nothing to modify. This can be rectified by adding a subject, as in:

Lied to repeatedly, she had no other option but to move jobs.

Now we have the past participle phrase ‘lied to repeatedly’ modifying the pronoun ‘she’. This provides a sentence that is much clearer.

Misplaced modifiers

Another mistake that can easily be made with past participle phrases is an awkward placement of the modifier in relation to the noun it is modifying. For example:

Lied to repeatedly, the husband was no longer someone the wife could trust. (incorrect)

Here we have the past participle phrase ‘lied to repeatedly’ which is supposed to be modifying ‘the wife’, but has ‘the husband’ right next to it. This is confusing, because it appears that it is ‘the husband’ who has been ‘lied to repeatedly’ and this is why the wife doesn’t trust him! This can be rectified by putting the phrase to be modified after the past participle:

Lied to repeatedly, the wife could no longer trust her husband.

4.2 Gerund phrase

Gerunds are verbals which take the base form of the verb and add ‘ing’ to create a word which works as a noun. Therefore, gerund phrases are two or more words without a subject-verb relationship that usually begin with an ‘ing’ form, and work as a noun.

Because gerunds work as nouns, gerund phrases can come in a number of different positions. For example:

Gerund phrase as the subject of a sentence

A sentence where the subject is a gerund phrase is:

Reading a novel is his favourite activity.

Here we have the gerund phrase ‘reading a novel’ working as a noun, and the subject, in the sentence ‘Reading a novel is his favourite activity.’ It is made up of the gerund ‘reading’ the definite article ‘a’ and the noun ‘novel’.

We can check it is a gerund phrase by replacing it with a pronoun because pronouns replace nouns, as in:

It is his favourite activity.

Gerund phrase as predicate nominative / noun or subject complement.

An example of a gerund phrase as a predicate nominative is:

The best part of the day was returning home.

Here we have the subject ‘the best part of the day’ + the linking verb ‘was’ + the predicate noun gerund phrase ‘returning home’. It is made up of the gerund ‘returning’, and the noun ‘home’ and is linking back to the noun phrase ‘the best part of the day’, to rename it.

We can check it is a predicate noun / subject complement by replacing the linking verb with the ‘=’ sign as in:

The best part of the day = returning home.

We can also check the gerund phrase is a noun by replacing it with a pronoun, as in:

The best part of the day was it.

It can be a bit confusing trying to tell the difference between a predicate noun and a predicate adjective,. In this situation, the gerund phrase ‘returning home’ is renaming the subject ‘the best part of the day’, rather than modifying it. An example of modification would be something like:

The shopkeeper is happy.

where the adjective ‘happy’ is modifying the subject ‘the shop keeper’, and is therefore a predicate adjective.

Gerund phrase as a direct object

An example of a gerund phrase as a direct object is:

Brazil generates winning football teams.

Here we have the subject ‘Brazil’, the verb ‘generates’ and the direct object gerund phrase ‘winning football teams’. We find the direct object with the formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives us:

Brazil generates what?

The answer is ‘winning football teams’ – the direct object.

We can check that the gerund phrase is a noun by replacing it with a pronoun:

Brazil generates them.

Gerund phrase as an indirect object

An example of a gerund phrase as an indirect object is:

John gives winning football teams his full support.

To find the indirect object we have to find the direct object first, with the formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives:

John gives what?

The answer is the noun phrase ‘his full support’ – the direct object.

Now we find the indirect object with the formula:

subject + verb + direct object + ‘to/for what?’ or ‘to/for whom?’

This gives us:

John gives his full support to what?

The answer is ‘winning football teams’ – the indirect object gerund phrase.

We can replace it with a pronoun as in:

John gives them his full support.

Gerund phrase as the object of a preposition

An example of a gerund phrase as the object of a preposition is:

He sleeps before playing a game.

Here we have the subject ‘he’ + the verb ‘sleeps’ + the preposition ‘before’ + the object of the preposition gerund phrase ‘playing a game’. We can replace the gerund phrase with a pronoun:

He sleeps before it.

4.2.1 Gerund phrases vs present participle phrases

As we saw earlier, gerunds and present participles have the same spelling, so can easily be mixed up. The same is true for gerund and present participle phrases. We have to remember that present participles phrases act as adjectives, and gerund phrases as nouns. The best way to do this is to think about the function of the phrase in the sentence, and try the pronoun replacement of the phrase to see if it works as a noun. Here is an example of both, showing the phrase and a pronoun replacement example:

Present participle phrase

Running for cover, the boy dodged the obstacles with remarkable agility.

It, the boy dodged the obstacles with remarkable agility. (incorrect)

Here the present participle phrase ‘running for cover’ cannot be replaced by a pronoun, suggesting it is not a gerund. If it is not a gerund, and it is a verb base + ‘ing’ form, it is a present participle. We would then have to work out whether it is working as an adjective (which it is in this case, modifying ‘the boy’) or forming one of the progressive and perfect progressive tenses.

Gerund phrase

Jumping for joy is all he could do.

It is all he could do.

Here the gerund phrase ‘jumping for joy’ can be replaced by a pronoun, suggesting it is a gerund. Are there any times where this doesn’t work? When the gerund phrase is the subject, like above, it usually works well. When it is a predicate noun / subject complement, it can sound a little strange, as in:

The first activity was searching for raspberries.

The first activity was it.

But it still works. Compare this to a predicate noun / subject complement which is a present participle as in:

The shopkeeper was feeling happy.

The shopkeeper was it. (incorrect).

Notice how this doesn’t sound right? This is because the present participle phrase ‘feeling happy’ is modifying the subject ‘the shopkeeper’ not renaming it. It is, therefore, working as an adjective.

Another interesting thing to do is to try to show one of the phrases as a gerund, then a present participle phrase. For example:

Gerund phrase

The first activity was searching for raspberries.

The first activity was it.

Present participle phrase

The shopkeeper was searching for raspberries.

The shopkeeper was it.

Notice how the pronoun replacement works in the gerund example, but not in the present participle one? This can be tricky. Try coming up with your own examples of each. The important point is that in the gerund example the subject ‘the first activity’ is being renamed as ‘searching for raspberries’, making the latter a gerund phrase. In contrast, in the present participle example, the noun phrase subject ‘the shopkeeper’ is instead being modified as someone that is ‘searching for raspberries’, making the latter a present participle phrase. The important thing here is the subject (‘the shopkeeper’) could never be renamed as ‘searching for raspberries’ because he is a person, not an activity, whereas ‘the first activity’ could easily be renamed as searching for raspberries. We can look at it again with an equals sign for both:

The first activity = searching for raspberries. (correct)

The shopkeeper = searching for raspberries. (incorrect)

It would be possible to rename the shopkeeper with other words though, for example:

The shopkeeper was John Smith.

The shopkeeper = John Smith.

The shopkeeper was him.

Note how ‘the shopkeeper’ is being renamed here with the noun phrase ‘John Smith’ and can, therefore, be replaced with a pronoun.

4.3 Infinitive phrases

Infinitives use ‘to’ + the base form of the verb to work as a noun, adjective or adverb. Let’s look at infinitive phrases working as each of these forms.

Infinitive phrase as a noun

An example of an infinitive phrase working as a noun is:

To love someone is the most powerful thing in the world.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to love someone’ is the subject and therefore working as a noun. It is made up of the infinitive ‘to love’ + the pronoun object ‘someone’. To check it is a noun we can replace it with a pronoun:

It is the most powerful thing in the world.

We can also switch it around to make it the noun as a predicate noun / subject complement, as in:

The most powerful thing in the world is to love someone.

Here the infinitive phrase (‘to love someone’) is renaming the subject (‘the most powerful thing in the world’) via the linking verb ‘is’. Remember, we can check for this by replacing the linking verb with an ‘=’ sign:

The most powerful thing in the world = to love someone.

And we can replace with a pronoun:

The most powerful thing in the world is it.

We can also have an infinitive phrase as a direct object, as in:

Most people want to love someone.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to love someone’ is the direct object of the the verb ‘want’. We find this with the formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives us:

Most people want what?

The answer is ‘to love someone’ – which is the direct object.

Replacing with a pronoun gives:

Most people want it.

Infinitive phrase as an adjective

An example of an infinitive phrase working as an adjective is:

She bought a dress to wear at the ball.

Here, the infinitive phrase ‘to wear at the ball’ works as an adjective by modifying the noun ‘dress’. It is made up of the infinitive ‘to wear’ + the preposition ‘at’ + the noun phrase ‘the ball’.

We could also have the infinitive as an adjective in other positions, as in:

They rented a car to drive to the national park because neither of them owned one.

Here we have the infinitive phrase ‘to drive to the national park’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘a car’. It is made up of the infinitive ‘to drive’ + the preposition ‘to’ + the noun phrase ‘the national park’.

Infinitive phrase as an adverb

An example of an infinitive phrase working as an adverb is:

Ben stopped to read the train timetable.

Here, the infinitive phrase ‘to read the train timetable’ is working as an adverb by modifying the verb ”stopped’.

Another example is:

Ben was happy to accept the answer.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to accept the answer’ is working as an adverb by modifying the adjective ‘happy’. It is worth pointing out, in this example, that ‘happy to accept the answer’ could be described as an adjective phrase, as it is modifying the noun ‘Ben’. This doesn’t mean that ‘to accept the answer’ isn’t an adverb phrase, just that it is an adverb phrase within an adjective phrase!

Another example is:

Ben stopped to read the train timetable to check the times.

Here, the infinitive phrase ‘to check the times’ is working as an adverb, modifying the infinitive phrase ‘to read the train timetable’, which is itself working as an adverb by modifying the verb ‘stopped’.

5) Adverb phrases

Adverb phrases are phrases which modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. They can be phrases which start with an adverb, or they can be prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases. Let’s start with phrases that start with an adverb.

An example of an adverbial phrase modifying a verb is:

Ben plays exceptionally aggressively.

Here we have the subject noun ‘Ben’ + the verb ‘plays’ + the adverb phrase ‘exceptionally aggressively’ which is modifying the verb ‘plays’. The adverb phrase is made up of the adverb ‘exceptionally’ and the other adverb ‘aggressively’.

An example of an adverbial phrase modifying an adjective is:

Sheila looks beautiful very often.

Here we have the subject noun ‘Sheila’ + the verb ‘looks’ + the predicate adjective ‘beautiful’ + the adverb phrase ‘very often’ which is modifying the adjective ‘beautiful’. The adverb phrase is made up of the adverb ‘very’ and the other adverb ‘often’.

An example of an adverbial phrase modifying an adverb is:

Jane reads obsessively very often.

Here we have the subject noun ‘Jane’ + the verb ‘reads’ + the adverb ‘obsessively’ + the adverb phrase ‘very often’ which is modifying the adverb ‘obsessively’.

Examples of infinitive phrases working as adverbs to modify a verb, adjective and adverb are as we just saw in the infinitive section:

Ben stopped to read the train timetable.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to read the timetable’ is working as an adverb by modifying the verb ‘stopped’.

Ben was happy to accept the answer.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to accept the answer’ is working as an adverb by modifying the adjective ‘happy’.

Ben stopped to read the train timetable to check the times.

Here the adverb ‘to check the times’ is working as an adverb by modifying the infinitive phrase’ to read the timetable’ which itself is working as an adverb by modifying the verb ‘stopped’.

Examples of prepositional phrases working as adverbs to modify a verb, adjective and adverb are:

She left before him.

Here we have the pronoun subject ‘she’ + the verb ‘left’ + the prepositional phrase ‘before him’ which is working as an adverb by modifying the verb ‘left’.

He was sick until fairly recently.

Here we have the subject pronoun ‘he’ + the verb ‘was’ + the predicate adjective ‘sick’ + the prepositional phrase ‘until fairly recently’ working as an adverb by modifying the adjective ‘sick’.

He drove exceptionally until fairly recently.

Here we have the subject pronoun ‘he’ + the past simple tense verb ‘drove’ + the adverb ‘exceptionally’, which is modifying ‘drove’, + the prepositional phrase ‘until fairly recently’, which is working as an adverb by modifying the adverb ‘exceptionally’.

We look at prepositional phrases next.

6) Prepositional phrases

We went over prepositional phrases earlier. I have copied that section here so we can go over it again. If you are anything like me you won’t mind repeating stuff because it is so unfortunately easy to forget things!

Prepositional phrases are the entire phrase that begins with the preposition and ends with the noun, or pronoun. For example:

I had dinner with her.

Here the preposition ‘with’ and the noun ‘her’ make up the prepositional phrase ‘with her’. Prepositional phrases usually work as adverbs or adjectives. In this case, the prepositional phrase ‘with her’ is modifying the noun ‘dinner’ by giving us an extra detail about the dinner, making it an adjective.

The basic components of a prepositional phrase are a preposition, an object of the preposition and any modifiers to the object. By modifiers I mean anything which modifies the object, such as the definite article ‘the’ in the noun phrase ‘The man’. The object of a preposition is usually a noun or pronoun. This also means that anything that functions as a noun, or pronoun, can go along with the preposition to make up the prepositional phrase. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Firstly, let’s look at a preposition + a noun to make up a prepositional phrase:

He vomited after lunch.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘after lunch’ is modifying the verb ‘vomited’; therefore it is acting as an adverb. In this case, it is an adverb of time answering the question ‘vomited when?’. It is made up simply of the preposition ‘after’ and the noun ‘lunch’, which is also the object of the preposition.

Now let’s look at the very common preposition + noun phrase construction for making a prepositional phrase:

She left before rush hour.

Here, the prepositional phrase ‘before rush hour’ is modifying the verb ‘left’; therefore, it is acting as an adverb by answering the question ‘when did she leave?’. It is made up of the preposition ‘before’ and the noun phrase ‘rush hour’.

The following is an example of a preposition + a noun phrase with a relative clause after it. Before we look at it, a relative clause is a type of dependent/subordinate clause which works to modify a noun. It is underlined in the below example:

His first kiss was on the pier which was lit up by the full moon.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘on the pier’ is modifying the verb ‘was’ making it an adverb. It is an adverb of place, answering the question ‘where was his first kiss?’. We then have the relative clause ‘which was lit up by the full moon’ directly after, which is working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘the pier’ to give us extra details about it.

One of the important things to remember here is that ‘was’ is being linked to ‘the pier’ via the preposition ‘on’. This preposition creates a bridge between the two that means the underlined relative clause is only working on the words to the right side of the bridge: ‘the pier’. Once one knows that the relative clause can only work on things on this right side of the bridge, it hopefully becomes a bit easier to see that ‘which was lit up by the full moon’ is working as an adjective on the noun phrase ‘the pier’. Prepositions can get confusing at times, but the best thing to do is to look around them and try to work out how they are interacting with the rest of the word classes in the sentence.

Moving on, here is an example of a preposition + a gerund phrase:

He protested against killing innocent people.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘against killing innocent people’. This is an interesting one. Let’s think about the words that follow it. We have already heard that prepositions are always followed by a noun, or a pronoun. However, in this example we have ‘killing’ at the beginning, which may be especially confusing if you have never heard of gerunds (and still potentially confusing even if you have!). In certain circumstances, ‘killing’ can be considered a gerund, which is an ‘ing’ form created from a base verb form – in this case ‘kill’ – which works as a noun. Gerund phrases are phrases which begin with a gerund and work as a noun. Considering that pronouns can replace nouns, that should mean we can replace ‘killing innocent people’ with a pronoun. Let’s try:

He protested against killing innocent people.

He protested against it.

OK, that works well, even if we need some other context to know what ‘it’ is. So we can think of ‘killing innocent people’ as the object of the preposition and as a noun. Now, the prepositional phrase ‘against killing innocent people’ is modifying the verb ‘protested’, making it an adverb. It doesn’t quite fit any of the adverb types we have talked about, with it really answering the question ‘He protested what?’

An example of a preposition + a pronoun is:

She left before him.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘before him’ is modifying the verb ‘left’ making it an adverb. It is an adverb of time, answering the question ‘left when?’. Note that the pronoun ‘him’ is the object of the preposition, and it is in the objective case (the subjective case would be ‘he’).

Now for an example of preposition + adverb phrase:

He was sick until fairly recently.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘until fairly recently’ working as an adverb by modifying the predicative adjective ‘sick’ by answering the question ‘he was sick when?’ This is an interesting one because the object of the preposition is usually a noun or a pronoun, but this time it is the adverb phrase ‘fairly recently’.

Now for an example of a preposition + a prepositional phrase:

Please get my wallet from underneath the newspaper.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘from underneath the newspaper’ which is working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘my wallet’ by telling us an extra detail about it. This is an interesting one because it has the preposition ‘from’ then it has the prepositional phrase ‘underneath the newspaper’ as the object of the preposition. This means it has a prepositional phrase inside a prepositional phrase, which is liable to make my head spin.

6.1 Common errors with prepositional phrases

One error that is easy to make with prepositional phrases is for the verb to not agree with the subject. The agreement of the verb relates to whether the subject is singular or plural. For example:

The flat above us is huge.

In this example, the verb ‘is’ is the singular, first person form of ‘be’. This is correct because the subject in this sentence is ‘The flat above us’, which is singular, and, therefore, needs a singular verb. This would be incorrect if written as:

The flat above us are huge. (incorrect)

The reason this mistake is sometimes made is because the writer mixes up the pronoun at the end of the prepositional phrase with the subject. In this case, the pronoun at the end of the prepositional phrase ‘above us’ is the plural pronoun ‘us’. If we were to look at that as the subject of the verb, then we might make the mistake of using the plural ‘are’ rather than the correct plural ‘is’. Furthermore, If the subject, ‘The flat above us’ was made plural, then ‘are’ would be correct as in:

The flats above us are huge. (correct)

If you are a native English speaker, the sentence ‘The flat above us are huge’ might just sound wrong without you even having to think about it. However, there are some examples where – at least to me – the error isn’t as audibly obvious. For example:

A team of runners are approaching. (incorrect)

What is the subject here? The answer is ‘A team of runners’ which is singular. This is because ‘a team’ is being discussed as one single entity – we explored this concept earlier under collective nouns. And what is the verb? The answer is the plural ‘are’. Therefore, the plural verb ‘are’ is not in agreement with the singular subject ‘A team of runners’. The correct answer is:

A team of runners is approaching. (correct)

I think the error is less obvious for two reasons.

1) ‘A team’ is a collective noun, which is a noun describing a group of things as a single entity.

2) ‘Runners’ is plural, which makes it very tempting to use the plural verb.

As is the case with most rules, there are some exceptions to this one. These exceptions are seen when the indefinite pronouns:

‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, and ‘some’

are at the head of the noun phrase which is the subject, just as ‘the team’ was in the earlier example. In such a situation, the object of the preposition (usually the noun/pronoun after it) can change the verb depending on whether it is singular or plural. This is because these indefinite pronouns don’t tell us whether they are singular or plural. Let’s look at some examples of sentences with these pronouns at the head of a subject phrase first as singular, then as plural:

All of the book is written.

All of the books are written.

Note that the subject in the first example us ‘All of the book’ and the subject in the second is ‘All of the books’. In both of these sentences the pronoun ‘all’ doesn’t tell us whether the verb is singular or plural. In the first sentence the object of the preposition, ‘book’, is singular, so the verb is the singular ‘is’, whereas, in the second sentence, the object of the preposition, ‘books’, is plural, so the verb is the plural ‘are’. This is possible because the indefinite pronoun ‘all’ can be used in singular or plural constructions.

7) Absolute phrases

If the phrase doesn’t fall into any of the other categories mentioned, there is a good chance it is an absolute phrase. Absolute phrases modify a main clause – which often amounts to the entire rest of the sentence. Their modification involves adding a context to the rest of the sentence, be that psychological, or physical. They are also usually described as being grammatically isolated from the rest of the sentence, and this is shown by the fact the sentence will still make sense if we remove them.

When trying to recognise absolute phrases, the four most important factors to remember are:

1) They will not contain a finite verb (verb that can be inflected), but can contain verbals.

2) They will not contain a conjunction linking them to the rest of the sentence.

3) They will be offset by a comma, pair of commas, dash or pair of dashes.

4) The absolute phrase cannot stand alone as a sentence (this is true for all phrases, but always worth remembering), but the rest of the sentence often can because it is commonly a main/independent clause.

With these in mind, let’s think of some examples.

His concentration hopelessly dissipated, Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

Here we have the absolute phrase ‘His concentration hopelessly dissipated’ which is adding some context to the entire main clause ‘Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.’ One could make the argument that this phrase is actually modifying the noun ‘Ben’, making it an adjective phrase. If we try to restructure the sentence to make it more clearly an adjective phrase, we have to start adding in finite verbs. For example:

Ben’s hopelessly dissipated concentration led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV.

Here we have the noun phrase ‘Ben’s hopelessly dissipated concentration’ which has the adjective phrase ‘hopelessly dissipated’ modifying the noun ‘concentration’. However, this isn’t quite the same as the original sentence. Let’s put them next to each other to make it easier to compare:

His concentration hopelessly dissipated, Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

Ben’s hopelessly dissipated concentration led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV.

We can see that we had to add the past tense verb ‘led’ to the second sentence, which makes a more causal connection between his concentration and his stopping studying. Instead, in the original sentence, the absolute phrase ‘His concentration hopelessly dissipated’ more sets the scene; while it does imply a relation between the two, it isn’t quite as explicit. This difference also means that we can get rid the absolute phrase, but not the noun one, or the adjective one within the noun one. For example:

His concentration hopelessly dissipated, Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

We can see here that if we get rid of the absolute phrase that the sentence can stand alone because the absolute phrase is not so direct. However, if we do the same with the second sentence:

Ben’s hopelessly dissipated concentration led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV.

Led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV. (incorrect)

We can see it doesn’t work: the sentence cannot stand alone because because ‘led’ doesn’t have a subject. This actually also reminds us that ‘Ben’s hopelessly dissipated concentration’ is actually the subject of this sentence, whereas I would probably say simply ‘Ben’ is in the proposed absolute phrase example.

This being able to take away the absolute phrases reminds me of appositives. How do absolute phrases compare to appositives?

Appositives rename the noun in the sentence, adding extra detail to it. If we tried to make the original sentence into an appositive we could write:

Ben’s concentration, hopelessly dissipated, led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV.

Here we have the adjective appositive phrase ‘hopelessly dissipated’ modifying the noun phrase ‘Ben’s concentration’. This is telling us something about the noun ‘Ben’s concentration’. A noun appositive would be something like this:

Ben’s dissipated concentration, a mental process, led him to stop studying and slump in front of the TV.

This time the appositive noun phrase ‘a mental process’ is renaming the noun phrase ‘Ben’s dissipated concentration’. However, I imagine you might be screaming for me to use all of the words from the absolute phrase like this:

Ben, his concentration hopelessly dissipated, stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

OK, so this looks like an appositive, with the commas around it, but is it really? The phrase ‘his concentration hopelessly dissipated’ is not renaming the noun ‘Ben’, so it isn’t an appositive noun phrase. Is it modifying it as an appositive adjective phrase? If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure. On the one hand, it appears to be working as an appositive adjective phrase, modifying the noun ‘Ben’ by giving us an extra detail about him. However, the difference between this and many other appositive adjectives is that it introduces a new subject with ‘his concentration’. Often, the appositive adjective will just be something like ‘Ben, happy, skipped down the road’. Here the appositive adjective ‘happy’ is adding a detail about Ben. But, in this example, we are getting this extra subject, which is going beyond describing the subject ‘Ben’ and moving it to ‘his concentration’.

We talked about an absolute phrase modifying the whole main clause. Does this phrase do that? It does have a similar effect, by giving extra context, rather than just modifying the noun ‘Ben’. So, we could say that it is an absolute phrase which comes after the subject.

Let’s look at them next to each other to try and see if there are differences:

Ben, his concentration hopelessly dissipated, stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

His concentration hopelessly dissipated, Ben stopped studying and slumped in front of the TV.

Thinking more functionally, what is the difference in the effect of these two sentences? There isn’t really much, is there? This suggests that the first sentence is also an absolute phrase, just coming directly after the noun. I also think the second sentence flows a bit better, setting the scene and feeling less jagged. The apposition of the first sentence is a bit choppy, stopping and starting the reading ungracefully. It also puts a bit more emphasis on the subject ‘Ben’ by starting the sentence with him, and perhaps a little less emphasis on ‘his concentration’. This could be beneficial if one wanted to put more emphasis on ‘Ben’.

Let’s look at some more examples of absolute phrases:

We left the room pensively, our minds contemplating the speech.

Here we have the absolute phrase ‘our minds contemplating the speech’ modifying the entire clause ‘we left the room pensively’. It is made up of the noun phrase ‘our minds’ + the present participle ‘contemplating’ + the noun phrase ‘the speech’. Looking at the 4 things we find in absolute phrases from earlier we have:

1) No finite verbs, but there is the verbal ‘contemplating’.

2) No conjunctions between the absolute phrase and the main/independent clause.

3) The absolute phrase is offset by a comma.

4) The absolute phrase cannot stand alone, while the rest of the sentence can.

One very useful function of absolute phrases is to take two, or more, usually short sentences, and combine them to create a more flowing sentence. Take the example just given:

We left the room pensively, our minds contemplating the speech.

This could have been two shorter sentences, as in:

We left the room pensively. Our minds were contemplating the speech.

Too many short sentences in this way can really destroy the flow of the piece. If your writing looks like this you can use absolute phrases to improve it. It should be said there are other ways to improve this short sentence problem; the first that springs to mind is using a semi-colon, as in:

We left the room pensively; our minds were contemplating the speech.

Nevertheless, let’s analyse how to change these two short sentences into a single, better flowing, one using an absolute phrase.

1) Get rid of any linking verbs, if there are no linking verbs, change the verb into a verbal.

In this example we can turn ‘Our minds were contemplating the speech’ into ‘our minds contemplating the speech’, by getting rid of the linking verb ‘were’.

2) Offset with commas or dashes

Then we just need to link the main clause and the absolute phrase with a comma in between instead of a full stop to give us:

We left the room pensively, our minds contemplating the speech.

Finally, one common construction for absolute phrases is an infinitive, as in:

To be honest, my job is pointless.

Here the infinitive phrase ‘to be honest’ is not really working in the way infinitive phrases normally do. Infinitive phrases usually work as adjectives, modifying nouns, or as adverbs, modifying verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. However, ‘to be honest’ is really just setting the seen for the main clause ‘my job is pointless’.

8) Questions

1) Explain noun phrases.

2) Explain verb phrases

3) Explain adjective phrases

4) Explain verbal phrases

5) Explain prepositional phrases

6) Explain absolute phrases

OK, that is all for phrases. Let’s look at clauses next.

NEXT: 29) Clauses in detail

Posted in English Grammar