Meaning of phrase
Phrase is a group of related words without a finite verb that expresses an incomplete thought.
The man, the three men, the three handsome men, the three handsome men in the world, very good, has come, very late, in the class etc.
All the above expressions are examples of phrases; there is no finite verb in any of the above expressions, also, none of the above expressions makes a complete thought.
The length of an expression does not really matter in identifying it as a phrase or otherwise, what is more important is the presence or absence of a finite verb; If there is no finite verb within the related words, then it is a phrase, but if there is a finite verb, then it becomes a different structure which we will discuss later.
Types of Phrases
There are five types of phrases; we shall look at these types briefly here;
- Noun Phrase; A noun phrase is a group of related words without a finite verb that has a noun as the headword.
One can also say that, a noun phrase is a group of related words without a finite verb that has a noun function, such as; subject, object, complement or appositive.
Examples of Noun Phrases
a. The men are fighting. (the noun phrase in the sentence above is ‘the men’ because the headword is ‘men‘) the headword basically refers to the obligatory word in an expression. This word cannot be dropped, when it is dropped, the expression becomes ungrammatical and meaningless.
For instance, if we drop the headword from the above expression, the new sentence we will now have will be; *The are fighting, which is ungrammatical.
But if we drop ‘the‘ which is part of the phrase, the sentence will still be meaningful as we will have; men are fighting, which is still grammatical. This explains why ‘the‘ is not the headword in the above expression, because it can be dropped without destroying the grammaticality of the sentence.
b. The three intelligent men are fighting.
What is the headword in the underlined expression?
The headword is ‘men‘ again because all the other words can be dropped without destroying the grammaticality of the sentence, however, if we drop ‘men‘, the meaning of the sentence will be destroyed.
c. The most recalcitrant students have been dismissed.
The headword in the above expression is ‘students‘ because this is the word that is obligatory in the underlined expression, apart from this word, any other word or expression can be dropped without destroying the meaning of the sentence. Also, there is no finite verb in the construction, that is why it is a phrase.
In our next article, we shall examine the noun phrase into details by looking at its structure and functions.
- Verb Phrase; The verb phrase is a group of related words that have a verb as the headword.
This could be made up of a main or lexical verb and its auxiliaries, or a predicator or a verb and its complements.
Examples of the verb phrase
i. The men are fighting for food.
The headword in the underlined expression in ‘fighting‘, which is a verb, that is why the expression is seen as a verb phrase.
ii. The young lady insulted her husband.
(the underlined expression in a verb phrase because, it is made up of a predicator i.e. insulted or a verb and its complements.
Even though, there is one verb, it is still a verb phrase because it is the verb that introduces the expression with its complements coming after it. If we were to divide the sentence into its component parts, we would have the young lady as our noun phrase (or subject), and then, insulted her husband as the verb phrase (or predicate).
iii. The children will not be coming home today.
The verb phrase in the above expression is will not be coming.
- Prepositional Phrase; A prepositional phrase is a group of related words without a finite verb that has a preposition as the headword. Or you can say; a prepositional phrase is a group of words introduced by a preposition.
i. In the big room
ii. At the backyard
iii. Inside the magnificent building
All the above expressions are examples of prepositional phrases because all these expressions are introduced by prepositions; in, at, inside.
Note; We have not used these prepositional phrases in sentences because we will later find out that if they are used in sentences, they may have a grammatical function as that of; a noun phrase, an adverb phrase or an adjective phrase, and from there, you will get to understand why an adjective phrase and an adjectival phrase may not be the same.
- Adjective or Adjectival Phrase; An adjective phrase is a group of words without a finite verb that has an adjective as the headword. It could also be referred to as a group of related words without a finite verb that has an adjective function, this definition, I normally consider, is the best because it covers other expressions that may not have an adjective as the headword, but will be doing the work of an adjective.
a. Haluri is very beautiful.
The headword in the above expression is beautiful, once beautiful is an adjective, very beautiful becomes an adjective phrase.
b. Gbene is extremely patient.
The headword in the above expression is patient.
c. The lady in the building is sick.
The headword in the above expression is not an adjective, it is a preposition, i.e ‘in‘, so we will not be wrong to say it is a prepositional phrase, but once it is used in a context, we may have to look beyond its structure to determine its class based of the role it plays in the sentence.
The lady, which lady? The one in the building. Can we say in the building gives more information about the kind of lady? Yes.
If yes, then it means once lady is a noun, we can confidently say that in the building gives more information about a noun, and we learnt that a word that gives more information (i.e describes) about a noun or a pronoun is an adjective, hence, in the building is an adjectival phrase in this sentence.
We shall look at this into details under adjective and adjectival phrases.
- Adverbial Phrase; An adverbial phrase is a group of words without a finite verb that has an adverb as the headword. Or a group of words without a finite verb that has an adverbial function, i.e. modifies a verb, an adjective or an adverb.
a. The chameleon walks very slowly.
The headword in the underlined expression is slowly. Slowly is an adverb, hence, very slowly is an adverbial phrase.
b. Rahaman came in the morning.
The headword in the underlined expression is not an adverb, but rather, a preposition, i.e. in, so we may say it is a prepositional phrase, however, it gives us information about when Rahaman came, so if we ask the question, when did Rahaman come? One will respond in the morning, and we learnt that adverbs answer the questions; how? When? Where? Why? How often? etc.
So based on the function in the morning plays in the sentence, we will call it an adverbial phrase.
In our next article, we shall examine each of the types of phrases into details, by looking at their structures, their constituents and their functions.