Types of Phrases in the English Language


Definition of phrases and sentence structure

The ability to define sentence parts helps us to learn and master a foreign language.  Grammar names the type of words and word groups.  Although we can put sentences together, grammar helps us to be able to talk about how sentences are built and types of words and word groups that make-up sentences.  Our human minds have a fantastic ability to understand complex sentences.  Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear, exciting, and precise. Foreign English learners will benefit from understanding sentence construction because they can compare sentence construction in their language and how English differs.

Phrase definition

A phrase is a part of speech without both a subject and verb, that function as a single part of speech

Prepositional phrases

These are made up of a preposition and a noun or pronoun.  They function as adjectives or adverbs.

For example:

In the world; on the moon; at school

Appositive phrases

An appositive:

  • Is a noun that renames another noun or pronoun
  • Consists of the appositive and all of its modifiers,

For example, John, my uncle, played moonlight sonata. The name ‘John’ has an appositive renaming to my uncle.

Verb phrases

These are made up of the main verb and at least one helping verb, this functions together as a single verb (He must have eaten the pie.)

There are three verbal phrases,

  • Gerund phrases
  • Participial phrases
  • Infinitive phrases

Gerund Phrases 

These are formed from verbs, but function as nouns.  They end in –ing.

I like walking along the beach.

Walking along the beach is a gerund phrase because it acts as the direct object of the verb like

Participial phrases

Participles act as an adjective; they end in -ng, -d, -t or  -n.   A participle phrase will begin with a present or past participle. If the participle is present, it will end in -ing.  A regular past participle will end in a -ed.  A particle phrase modifies the object of the phrase, the noun.

The duck is slowly approaching and hopes that you have some bread.

Slowly approaching acts like an adjective and modifies the noun duck.

Dangling participles

Do you know what are dangling participles?  Do you know why you should avoid them?

Participles are verbal that are formed from verbs but act as adjectives.


Participle phrases are parts of speech that contain a participle and its complements or modifiers.

A dangling participle does not have anything to modify.  The subject is missing or is confusing.


Looking in the bathroom, the toothbrush is in the cup.

The participle phrase is placed before the noun, and this makes it sound like the toothbrush is looking around the bathroom.


Looking in the bathroom, I saw the toothbrush in the cup.  

The subject ‘I’ is identified, and it is apparent that ‘I’ was looking around the bathroom and not the toothbrush.

Infinitive phrases

An infinitive phrase:

  • Will begin with an infinitive (to + the simple form of a verb)
  • They Contain objects and/or modifiers.
  • Infinitive phrases can function as nouns, adjectives or adverbs.

Example: I want to walk to the shop

The difference between phrases and clauses


  • A clause must contain both a subject and a predicate.  The subject is what the predicate (verb) acts on, for example,  Peter went to the beach.  Peter is the subject.  Went to is the predicate.


  • Do not require a subject or a predicate, for example, After the goldrush.

Clauses are built up of phrases, for example,  After the goldrush, they all went home.


A phrase can act as a noun, an adjective, a preposition or an adverb; they are a part of a sentence lacking both the subject and object.

  • Noun phrases – function as a syntactic unit; using conjunctions, prepositions, specifiers, and modifiers.
  • Prepositional phrases – composed of a preposition and one or more nouns.
  • Verb phrases – are made up of a verb root and a preposition or particle which follows the verb.
  • Adjective phrases – they act as an adjective in a sentence.
  • Adverb phrases -they act as an adverb in a sentence.
  • Gerund phrases – contain a gerund (verb + ing), modifiers and other related words linked to the gerund. A gerund acts as a noun.
  • Participle phrases  – a group of a present-participle (verb + ing) or a past participle verb, modifiers and other linked words; they act as a noun and are separated by commas.
  • Infinitive phrases –  contain an infinitive and modifiers or words related to the infinitive.
  • Absolution phrases – consist of a noun or pronoun, a participle, and linked modifiers.

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Recommended Reading

Practical English Usage Reference key for terms used on websitePractical English Usage is a comprehensive guide to terms and difficult to understand concepts in English Grammar

Aaron Skudder


  1. Hi Aaron, Thanks for your great article on phrase building. As a person who loves languages I really appreciate your time for giving the explanation and examples.

    I used to TEFL before and you find yourself searching everywhere for ideas and help to prepare interesting and accurate classes.

    Well done and keep up the good work. 

  2. Thank you for this great piece of information, I totally understand the concept, I think you must have put a lot of energy in covering this lecture. I do gain a lot about phrases here and like the saying goes “We keep learning everyday “I will take the short quiz after reading this over again. 

  3. Thank you for teaching us through this post. Now I like giving comments, maybe this is an example of Gerund phrases. 

    I think I have to review this for several times memorize the examples before I can perfectly identify the phrases. 

    Nice work, Continue teaching people through your website. Many needs this for our effective and meaningful communication.

    • Gerund phrases would start a noun phrase that has ‘verb-ing’.  Your example is an infinitive phrase ‘I think..’

  4. I find it quite complicated to build sentences in English. Maybe in time I will succeed. For now, I will write in short and clear sentences on my blog. I am lucky that my great passion is cats. It can write a lot about cats. And you can write in short sentences lol

  5. This is an informative and well written post, thank you Aaron. I used to TEFL as part of a previous career and will never forget the TEFL training that started by teaching how to speak Mandarin. A great concept that worked.
    Your site is a wonderful resource for people English 2nd+ language needing to learn and native speakers too. This post is a helpful GoTo resource and the use of the quiz is a good idea to promote engagement.

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