The UVic Writer's Guide


Phrases are unified groups of words which do not combine the actor and act that produce predication. Beyond this crucial feature the term phrase is difficult to define with much precision. In

" Clever Mary used to study Latin nightly, didn't she?"

"clever Mary" would be called a noun phrase and "used to study" could accurately be called a verb phrase. But "used to study Latin" and "used to study Latin nightly" may equally well be called verb phrases in that they comprise groups of words which belong together but which do not include both the actor and act of predication.

Among the commonest of phrase types in English are prepositional phrases, groups of words introduced by one of a small handful of relational words like "in," "on," "behind," etc. which are known as prepositions because they are "pre-posed" or "placed before" the phrases they introduce. Prepositional phrases can function as adjectives or adverbs. Thus in 5a, "in your class" could be an adjectival phrase if it told us about Mary, but it could equally function adverbially:

5a The Mary in your class studies hard.

5b Mary studies hard in your class.

In sentence 5a the phrase acts as an adjective, modifying the noun "Mary," whereas in sentence 5b it is an adverb modifies the verb "studies," telling us where the studying takes place.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated Sept 24, 1995