The phrase is an intermediate level of organisation between a word and the clause. Each phrase is made up of a head word and any dependents. A phrase is named after the part of speech of the head. For example, the noun phrase (NP) the fierce dragon has the noun dragon as its head with the determiner the and the adjective fierce as its dependents. The smallest phrase may contain a single word (for example, the verb phrase (VP) sang in the clause Violet sang).


1. Constituency

2. Head words and dependents

Related pages

Noun phrases

Verb phrases

Adjective phrases

Adverb phrases

Prepositional phrases


How do we know that phrases exist? In saying that intermediate levels between the word and the clause are significant in English grammar we are asserting that within a clause there can be smaller groups of words that belong together. In order to judge whether a string of words forms a phrase we can make use of a number of tests:

Head words and dependents

Each phrase is named after its head word. The head word is the word that the phrase is required to have in order to exist. Many types of phrases (noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases and adverb phrases) can contain a single word but a small number of phrases always have dependents. For example, prepositional phrases normally have depenents since prepositions generally require a noun phrase to follow.

Different types of phrases have different types of dependents. Complements are dependents within a phrase that are necessary for the phrase to be grammatical. Thus, a prepositional phrase (PP) consists of a preposition as the head of the phrase and a noun phrase (NP) complement because prepositions are not usually grammatical on their own. For example, from the dentist contains the preposition from and the NP the dentist. A sentence that only had the preposition from is not grammatical (for example, *I came home from).

Many phrase types allow modifiers. Adjective phrases function as modifiers within noun phrases (for example, I found some lovely green shoes). Modifiers are optional dependents; the clause is grammatical whether they're there or not (for example, both I found some shoes and I found some lovely green shoes are grammatical clauses).

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