Lesson 4: Phrases

Lesson 4: Phrases
Once you understand how individual words can function in a sentence, you should have little difficulty
understanding that words can also function in a sentence as a group rather than individually. A phrase is one
such group of words that does not contain both a subject and a verb and that functions in a given sentence as a
single unit. Because it does not contain both a subject and a verb, a phrase that has been punctuated as if it were
a complete sentence is a grammatical error called a sentence fragment.
 Remember: A phrase cannot stand as a sentence by itself.
Kinds of Phrases:
The way in which a phrase functions in a given sentence depends on what kind of phrase it is.
1. Verb Phrase = auxiliary verb(s) + main verb
You have already encountered this kind of phrase in Lesson 1. As you know from that lesson, the verb of a
sentence sometimes consists of two or more words, as in the following examples:
She had been eating before her death.
Rob has never been to Florida.
Note, as in the second example, that other words may come between the auxiliary (or helping) verb and the
main verb that are not part of the verb phrase. What function does the word “never” have in the example
When asked to identify the verb of a sentence, be sure to identify the entire verb phrase of the
sentence if it contains one.
2. Prepositional Phrase = preposition + (modifiers) + noun or pronoun
Part of Speech: adjective or adverb (determine from function)
a) as adjectives (or modifiers) [what kind? which one? how many?]
Example: The importance of this lesson is obvious.
b) as subject complements (with linking verbs only)
Example: I am from Ohio.
c) as adverbs (or modifiers)
Example: He studies with diligence. [how he studies]
before breakfast. [when he studies]
in the library. [where he studies]
for hours. [to what extent he studies]
for better grades. [why he studies]
3. Appositive Phrase = noun or pronoun (i.e., an appositive) + modifiers
Part of Speech: adjective
Function: as adjective (or modifier); is set beside another noun or pronoun to explain, identify, or rename it.
Examples: English 101, a course in composition, is required for all freshmen.
An extremely hard worker, she finally received an “A” on her project.
The remaining three kinds of phrases are called verbals because they are created from verbs but do NOT
function as verbs in sentences.
Participial Phrase = verb stem + -ing (present participle) + (modifiers) + noun
or verb stem + -ed (past participle) + (noun or pronoun)
Part of Speech: adjective
Function: as adjective (or modifier)
Examples: Picking through the trash, he tried to find his essay.
Frustrated with the computer, she wrote the paper by hand.
Note: A participial phrase must clearly and logically modify a word in the sentence. When there is no
such word in the sentence that the participial phrase can sensibly modify, the phrase “dangles.” This
grammatical error is called a dangling modifier.
Example: Living in Columbia, my rent is outrageous.
Dangling modifiers can be corrected in two ways:
A) By adding a word to the sentence that the phrase can sensibly modify: Living in Columbia, I think
my rent is outrageous.
B) By changing the phrase to a subordinate clause: Because I am living in Columbia, my rent is
 Use a comma to separate introductory participial phrases from the rest of the sentence.
5. Gerund Phrase = verb stem + -ing + (modifiers) + (noun or pronoun)
Part of Speech: noun
Function: a) as subject: Writing that letter was a mistake.
b) as subject complement: His mistake was writing that letter.
c) as direct object: You should avoid writing that letter.
d) as the object of a preposition: He was promoted for writing that letter.
6. Infinitive Phrase = to + verb + (modifiers) + (noun or pronoun)
Part of Speech: noun
Function: a) as subject: To get a computer became her obsession.
b) as subject complement: Her obsession was to get a computer.
c) as direct object: She wanted to get a computer.
d) as adjective (or modifier): There must be a way to get a computer.
e) as adverb (or modifier): She was too poor to buy a computer.
**From Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition:
THE PROBLEM: How do the infinitive phrases function in the following examples?
Kristina wanted him to buy a pony for her.
Angela asked me to watch the children.
Mandy’s husband promised her to stop drinking.
Unlike other verbals, an infinitive may have a subject as well as complements and modifiers. When an
infinitive has a subject, the construction is called an infinitive clause, with the subject of the clause represented
in the objective case.
Examples: Everyone expected Josh to win the nomination.
[Josh is the subject of the infinitive to win.]
We believe the winner to be Jared.
[Winner is the subject of the infinitive to be; Jared is a noun functioning as a subject
Heather found it to be difficult.
[It is the subject of the infinitive to be; difficult is an adjective functioning as a subject
[Directions: Identify all the phrases you can find in the following selection and indicate their function in the sentence.]
(1) Long before organized schools education came to the backwoodsmen of the frontier from the saddle-packs
of circuit riders, wandering schoolmasters, and Yankee peddlers. (2) The circuit riders played an especially
large role in bringing books to the Midwestern frontier. (3) Carrying their gospel of salvation and education to
the most distant settlements in the wilderness, these itinerant Methodist preachers were instructed to save souls
and to supply their circuits with books. (4) To be a preacher and a book agent, then, was the circuit rider’s task.
(5) To accomplish this task, he was a man of much energy. (6) Working his circuit around the Cumberland
River, one circuit rider named Peter Cartwright became almost a legend in his own time. (7) His work included
preaching 14,600 times, baptizing 12,000 in his wilderness congregation, and distributing countless thousands
of books to frontier homes. (8) Circuit riders like him were responsible for an old saying on the frontier. (9)
Claiming that “There’s nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers” became a way of describing the
bitter cold of winter.
[Directions: Edit the following sentences to eliminate fragments (frag), dangling modifiers (dm), and errors in subject/verb agreement
(s/v agr), pronoun/antecedent agreement (p/a agr), and superfluous commas separating subject and verb (sc). Indicate the errors you
detect in each sentence in the spaces below.]
(1) Less concerned with selling books, culture was also brought to the frontier by the wandering schoolmaster.
(2) Clearing out wildcats from his log cabin schoolhouse in the morning, was only part of his work. (3) Their
primary responsibility were teaching rough and tumble schoolchildren to write with charcoal. (4) Boarding
with one family after another. (5) He read his books aloud to them by the evening fire. (6) In doing so, a
contribution was also made by him to the West. (7) For the itinerant peddler, education was a byproduct of his
effort. (8) The peddler went everywhere they could find a market. (9) Bringing his wares from New England, a
way was eventually made by him to the frontier. (10) This shrewd Yankee trader struck such a hard bargain
that he was sometimes barred. (11) From the settlements across the Alleghenies as an unwelcome intruder.
(12) Carried in his saddle-packs, the clanging of the pots and pans always announced his arrival. (13) But he
also bought, prized books. (14) To tie the backwoodsmen to book-learning. (15) For the reason, the itinerant
peddler join the preacher and the teacher as a force in frontier education.
1) _____________ 4) _____________ 7) _____________ 10) _____________ 13) _____________
2) _____________ 5) _____________ 8) _____________ 11) _____________ 14) _____________
3) _____________ 6) _____________ 9) _____________ 12) _____________ 15) _____________
*These exercises have been adapted from Louise A. Roberts’ Teach Yourself How to Write (New York: Harper’s College Press,
1975), 38. Handout prepared by Kathy Smith, UMC Writing Lab.