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GEN 100

Writing Workshop


If you recognize and understand parts of a sentence, you will be able to improve your grammar quite a bit. Please make sure you understand Phrases and Clauses.

As we learned before, a phrase is A sequence of grammatically related words without a subject, a predicate, or both; a clause is A group of related words that contains a subject and a predicate.

Phrases are smaller than clauses. Two or more phrases joined together make a clause.

Types of Phrases

There are eight types of phrases that we will review:

  1. Noun Phrase: a noun and its modifiers
  2. Verb Phrase: a verb and its auxiliary (helping) verbs
  3. Gerund Phrase: ~ing form of a verb; acts as a noun
  4. Participial Phrase: ~ing/~ed form of a verb; acts as a modifier
  5. Infinitive Phrase: "to" + base form of verb; acts as a noun or modifier
  6. Prepositional Phrase: a preposition + noun phrase; acts as a modifier
  7. Appositive: a double noun (phrase) describing a single thing
  8. Absolute Phrase: a noun phrase modified by a prepositional or a participial phrase

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase is simply a noun with mofifiers, including articles and other adjectives.

a new book
an incredibly good fortune

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is simply a verb with auxiliary (helping) verbs and adverbs.

could have gone
might have very quickly went
Verbal Phrases

The next three phrases—gerund, participial, and infinitive—are called Verbals, or verbal phrases. They use verb forms, but are not verbs. They can act as nouns and/or modifiers.

In particular, some students have trouble especially with Gerund and Participial phrases, mostly because both can use the "~ing" form of a verb. However, there are a few key differences which you should be aware of:

  • Gerund Phrases:
  • act as nouns
  • appear in a noun position
  • can be replaced with pronouns

  • Participial Phrases:
  • act as modifiers
  • are usually separated from the main sentence by commas
  • can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence

Gerund Phrase

Gerund phrases only use the "~ing" form of a verb. They can appear in the subject or direct-object positions in a sentence.

Studying English is easy.
However, you may not enjoy understanding English.

Remember, you can replace gerunds with pronouns:

It is easy.
However, you may not enjoy it.

Note that the complements to gerunds (in the above examples, "English") are part of the gerund phrase.

Participial Phrase

Participial phrases, on the other hand, may appear in present ("~ing") or past ("~ed") form:

Pulling hard on his leash, Ponta eagerly started his walk.
Confused by the loud sounds, Ponta started barking.

Note that the position of the phrase can shift:

Frightened by the loud sounds, Ponta started barking.
Ponta, frightened by the loud sounds, started barking.
Ponta started barking, frightened by the loud sounds.

Participial phrases can modify subjects or whole sentences:

Frightened by the loud sounds, Ponta started barking. (subject)
Ponta ran forward quickly, frightening the pigeons. (sentence)

Participial phrases can also modify predicates and objects; in such cases, they might not be set off by commas because they belong in a specific location:

He was able to open the door using his key. (predicate)
He bought a necklace made of gold. (object)

Infinitive Phrase

Infinitive phrases use "to" + the base form of the verb, and can act either as a noun or as a modifier.

George wants to pass the test tomorrow. (noun)
His plan to cheat is a bad idea, however. (modifier)

Note that in the above examples, "to pass the test" can be replaced by a pronoun; "to cheat" cannot.

Also note that certain verbs can be followed by a gerund only, an infinitive only, or by both. Some examples of these verbs can be found on page 25 of your Hodges Harbrace Handbook; you are expected to remember which verbs can be used with which phrases, so learn the verbs listed in the book.

Prepositional Phrase

Prepositional phrases modify based upon time, place, cause, and manner. They are made up of a preposition and a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. These nouns are called objects of the preposition.

Problem #1: Prepositional Phrase Positioning

You must be careful to place the prepositional phrase close to the words it modifies so you can avoid confusion. For example:

We will talk about the problem of cheating in my office.

In the sentence above, it sounds like there is cheating in my office, and that is a problem which we will talk about. However, what is meant is that there is a problem about cheating, and I want to talk about it in my office. Therefore, you should instead write:

In my office, we will talk about the problem of cheating.   or,
We will talk in my office about the problem of cheating.

Problem #2: Prepositions vs. Phrasal Verbs

Another problem with participial phrases is that they are often confused with phrasal verbs (not verb phrases!) such as "break up" or "lay off." Many people are confused about what is a verb + preposition, and what is a phrasal verb.

The easiest way to tell is to ask if the preposition is literal or not; that is, does the preposition mean exactly what it says? If you use the preposition "up," is anything actually going upwards? If not, then it is probably a phrasal verb. For example, if I "break up a fight," I am not doing anything in an upwards directions toward a fight.

Appositive Phrase

An appositive is a double noun phrase, sometimes with commas, which clarifies or adds extra information about the noun.

My brother, Tito, moved back to America last year.
I went to see Spielberg's new movie Lincoln last night.

"My brother" and "Tito" refer to the same person; "Spielberg's new movie" and "Lincoln" are the same movie.

Appositives can be essential (restrictive) and non-essential (non-restrictive). This will be covered in more detail in a following chapter, but remember that the use of commas can change meaning in important ways:

I told my brother Tito that I will be visiting for Christmas.
I told my brother, Tito, that I will be visiting for Christmas.

In the first sentence above, it is likely (but not certain) that I have more than one brother; in the second sentence, it is probably clear that I have only one brother. Adding commas makes the appositive non-essential; this means that the second noun phrase (in this case, "Tito") is not necessary (essential) to clarify the meaning of the first noun phrase ("my brother"). If the phrase "my brother" does not require clarification, that means it is clear who "my brother" is.

Notice that I use the words "likely" and "probably." This is because there are exceptions. For example, the identity of my brother might be clear for other reasons: he might have been mentioned previously, I might be pointing at him, or his identity might be clear from the context of the conversation.

Absolute Phrase

An absolute phrase consists of a noun phrase followed by either a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase. Absolute phrases act as modifiers, and usually are separated by commas. They often describe something which clarifies a situation or sets an emotional tone.

Ten dollars in his pocket, Billy left for the candy store. Marsha waited by the front door, her suitcase packed and ready.

Absolute phrases can add a great deal of meaning with very few words. Consider these two sentences:

Bruce spoke to the girl sitting next to him.
His wedding ring in his pocket, Bruce spoke to the girl sitting next to him.

In the first sentence, Bruce might be speaking to the girl sitting next to him for any reason; the context is unclear. However, in the second sentence, because of the absolute phrase, we know that if he probably intends to begin a romantic relationship with the girl despite the fact that he is married.

Absolute phrases are an excellent way to add description to your writing!