Understanding English Phrases

English phrases or phrases in English language are grammar units (aka syntactic units). But aren't clauses too such units? Yes, but the phrase is a basic type of grammar unit; a clause is a higher level grammar unit.

What is a phrase?

Since we call the phrase the basic type of grammar unit, we need to understand the following things...

  1. What is a grammar unit?

  2. What do we mean by a basic type of unit?

In this page, I'm going to deal with the first of these two questions.

What is a Grammar Unit?

When we call something a grammar unit, we mean that we look upon it through the eyes of grammar as being a single whole, whatever the number of parts it has.

We consider the phrase as a unit of grammar or syntax because it has a wholeness or unity in itself, though it may have many words in it.

How do we know something is a grammar unit?

If we get some groups of words in English, we cannot at once say whether they are English phrases or not. Just any random collection of words, for example, 'thoughts and in swam wow' is not a grammar unit.

Before we call something a phrase, we need to find out first if it is a grammar unit. How do we do that?

A grammar unit has a certain type of behaviour.

We are going to take a given phrase and see how it behaves.

We take the words, "four very simple questions" as our given phrase and we'll carefully watch its behaviour.

  1. The words within a phrase know who their boss is and who stands where in that grammatical environment.

    In the given phrase, we know that the word questions is the most important. It is called the head and the other three words serve it directly or indirectly.

    The words four and simple serve the head word directly: 'four questions' and 'simple questions' are acceptable utterances.

    The word very serves the head indirectly: 'very simple' is acceptable. The word very serves the word simple which in turn serves the word questions.

  2. A phrase does not welcome "outside elements" into it unless...

    ...the "outsider" is ready to serve the original phrase and blend with the words in it.

    The words, "four very are simple questions" are NOT an English phrase because the word 'are' does not fit in but disturbs the unity. The word behaves like a pebble in your plate of rice.

    On the other hand, four very simple grammar questions is a phrase because the word grammar acts as a modifier to questions and blends into the original phrase, like sugar in your cup of coffee.

    Whatever disturbs the wholeness (unity) of the original phrase cannot be part of the phrase. It is rejected. Whatever can faithfully serve the wholeness of the original phrase is welcomed as part of it! How interesting! How human!

    Grammar belongs to the depths of human existence. That's why we take it so much for granted!

  3. The words in a phrase travel together as one family.

    Look at how our given phrase performs in different locations in a sentence: in the beginning, the middle, or the end.

    1. Four very simple questions were answered in that lecture.

    2. I think that four very simple questions should not be avoided.

    3. We want to ask four very simple questions.

    But you can't move one part of the phrase to one place and another to a different location in a sentence.

    • *Four very were answered simple questions in that lecture.

    • *I think that four should not be avoided very simple questions.

    • *We want four very simple to ask questions.

    Such breaking up of the phrase has destroyed the phrase as well as the sentences it was a part of.

  4. It is often possible to substitute the whole English phrase with a pronoun or some other word.

    In our three numbered sentences, it is possible to substitute our given phrase as...

    1. They/these/those/all were answered in that lecture.

    2. I think that they/these/those should not be avoided.

    3. We want to ask them.

A Different Explanation

The question, 'What is a phrase?' has also an alternative explanation. This is a traditional explanation and is based on the semantic function of a group of words in a sentence, rather than the syntactic composition of the word-group.

For Further Reading and Study...

Related Pages

The World of Sentences

The Phrase

A Semantic Understanding of the Phrase

The Clause

The Sentence

Parts of a Sentence

Sentence Structure

Subject of a Sentence