Clauses and Phrases

Now that we have had a look at the individual parts of speech, it is important to see how these words work in groups. The main groupings within sentences are clauses and phrases.

A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. It may also include other elements, such as an object, adverb, or complement, and even full phrases used as modifiers. Some clauses can stand alone as sentences, with a complete idea.

A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a subject and verb. Whereas a clause functions to present information and move the text along, phrases function as modifiers to the subjects, verbs, or the entire clause. Phrases cannot stand alone as sentences.

Ex: Despite his repeated efforts to include Michael in team discussions and make him feel part of the group, Alex could simply not succeed in bringing Michael out of his shell.

Clause: Alex (sub) could not succeed (verb) – main idea of the sentence


Despite his repeated efforts – prepositional phrase: introductory phrase, show contrast

to include Michael in team discussions – infinitive phrase: complement to efforts

(to) make him feel part of the group – infinitive phrase: adverbial complement (why include?)

in bringing Michael out of his shell – prepositional/gerund phrases: complement to succeed

Before we look at how to construct different clauses and phrases, it is important to recognize the different types commonly used. It is also important to recognize that some phrases may look like clauses, but in fact are not, while others are actually reduced clauses.

Note: Each of these clauses and some of the phrases will be looked at in greater detail in other sections of this site. See the menu for each clause or phrase.


Independent: Every sentence in English must contain at least one independent clause. An independent clause, as its name suggests, does not need (or depend on) anything else in order to be a complete sentence. It contains the sentence’s main subject and verb, and the main idea.

Ex: Many people will cast a vote on Election Day. (on Election Day is an adverbial prepositional phrase to complement the independent clause’s main verb, will cast)

Subordinate/Dependent: These clauses cannot be complete sentences as they need (depend on) more information to be complete. These clauses begin with a subordinate or relative conjunction or pronoun.

Noun: This dependent clause acts a subject or object of a clause, or the object of a preposition, or a complement. We can also use noun clauses as objects of gerunds.

Ex: What Steven did is inexcusable. (What Steven did is the noun clause and the subject of the sentence.)

Please ask Joan how she likes her coffee. (how she likes her coffee is the direct object of the verb ask.)

Adjective/Relative: This dependent clause acts as an adjective to modify a noun.

Ex: The project, which is already two weeks behind schedule, ran into another major problem. (which is already two weeks behind schedule is an adjective clause that tells us something about the noun project.)

Adverb: This dependent clause acts as an adverb to modify the verb in the independent clause or to show a relationship to the independent clause.

Ex: The event had to be closed to the public because protesters made it impossible for participants to enter the building. (because protesters made it impossible is an adverb clause explaining why the event had to be closed.)


Prepositional: These phrases begin with a preposition and act to modify nouns and pronouns (like adjectives), verbs (like adverbs), and whole clauses (like complements). Hey are also used as introductory phrases to set up the context of the sentence. This may include time, place, purpose, etc. Essentially, prepositional phrases are extended prepositions and as such have their particular function based on the preposition they begin with.

Introductory phrases may be followed by a comma or not. If they are long, we generally use a comma. Short phrases, when clear, do not need a comma.

Ex: Over the next two weeks, regional managers will be stopping by to evaluate our procedures.

At high altitudes breathing becomes more difficult.

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Participle: These phrases begin with an active participle (-ing ) or a passive participle (-ed for regular verbs, past participle of irregular verbs). These phrases act as adjectives to the subject of an independent clause or as adverbs to the main verb of an independent clause. They appear at the beginning of the sentence, not at the end.

ExSensing that his time at the company was almost up, Felix prepared his resume to send out to companies. (Felix, who sensed that his time at the company was up, prepared his resume to send out to companies.)

Used sparingly, this lotion should last you up to a month. (If it is used sparingly, this lotion should last you up to a month.)

It is very important to realize that the participle is a reduced adjective or adverb clause. As such, the subject contained within the participle must be the same as that of the independent clause. It is also important to notice that when an adverb clause is reduced to a participle, the conjunction must be very obvious. If it might be confused, better to add the conjunction to the participle.

Ex: After finishing his studies, Jeremy plans to look for an internship to build his real world skills. (After he finishes his studies, Jeremy plans to look for an internship to build his real world skills.)

Absolute: These phrases are usually added as an aside to a sentence and are sometimes referred to as independent phrases in that they can be separated into their own sentence (by adding a verb instead of the participle or adjective/adverb, and sometimes a subject as well). This means that they are not essential to the sentence and they do not modify any particular word in the sentence. Instead, they add information out of interest or to show some sort of relationship to the independent clause as a whole. These phrases are often reduced adverb clauses that show a relationship of time, condition, cause, or concession. They are structured with a noun or pronoun and a participle, to indicate some action, or an adjective or adverb.

Ex: The team celebrated wildly at the conclusion of the game, their victory showing clearly in their smiles.

The concert will begin tomorrow at noon, weather permitting (if the weather permits).

It being a Sunday, all the stores in the town were closed.

The foreman stood on the platform overlooking the workers, his arms crossed in mean satisfaction.

True professionals, John and Jerry did not allow their emotions to affect their performance at the negotiations. (In this case the phrase can be Being true professionals, but it is not uncommon to remove the participle when it is clear and obvious).

Appositive: An appositive is essentially a reduced adjective clause that renames the noun it is modifying. It can also be used to emphasize the noun. Think of it as an adjective clause starting with which is, with the relative pronoun (which) and verb (is) removed (who if it is a person). The appositive phrase can be a noun or noun phrase, a gerund, an infinitive verb, or a participle. Quite often it is a proper name. An appositive is always set apart by commas and follows the noun it is modifying.

Ex: The President of the Social Club, Raul Santiago, has announced his plan to resign at the end of the year.

The blue whale, one of the largest mammals in the world, can be found in most of the Earth’s oceans.

Gerund: These phrases begin with a gerund. It is important to remember that a gerund, though technically a verb, acts as a noun and can be the subject or object of a sentence; do not confuse these phrases with active participle phrases. Also remember that a gerund, because it is a verb, can take an object. This object can be a noun clause.

Ex: Breathing heavily while climbing a flight of steps might indicate that one is out of shape.

For some people, watching a friend walk down the aisle can be a time of both pride and loneliness if they are still single. (…a friend walk down the aisle is not a clause. Walk is a base verb that acts as complement to friend.)

Telling a teenager not to do something is the surest way to get him to do that action. (… not to do something is the object of telling.)

Paul doesn’t feel comfortable telling Hannah she is fired. (…(that) she is fired is a noun clause that acts as second object to telling. The gerund phrase here is used as a complement to comfortable.)

Infinitive: An infinitive phrase begins with an infinitive verb. It can function as an adjective, adverb or noun. As a noun it can be the subject or object of a clause.

Ex: To understand the feeling of flight, try skydiving.

Bill, the boss would like to have a word with you.

Noun: A noun phrase includes a noun (called the head noun) and any other word or phrase that modifies the head noun. These modifiers can be adjectives or full adjective clauses, participle phrases, infinitive phrases, or prepositional phrases, or any combination of these. The key to recognizing a noun phrase is that all the words work together with the head noun, and that the entire phrase can act as a subject or object in a clause.

Ex: The male of the species tends to the young while the female forages for food. (head noun–male)

An unprecedented wave of vigilante violence spread fear over the town. (head noun–wave)

Look for a woman wearing red velvet shoes. (head noun–woman)

Note: sometimes the noun phrase may be interrupted by the remainder of the clause (main verb and object, adverb, etc.). This is usually done for effect, whereby the second part of the noun phrase is placed at the end of the sentence for emphasis:

Ex: The story went viral on Twitter that the actor had been arrested for drug possession. (The head noun is story; that is the adjective clause marker that modifies story.)

What is a Sentence