Clauses and Phrases

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Clauses and Phrases

Both clauses and phrases are basic components of writing sentences. When combined with other parts of speech and other parts of sentences, clauses and phrases help build an intricate system through which your words convey meaning. Understanding the difference between the two is vital to write grammatically correct and properly constructed sentences.

What are clauses?

A clause is a group of words that can act as a sentence, but is not necessarily a complete sentence on its own. All clauses contain both a subject and a predicate, which always contains a verb. A predicate tells something about what the subject is doing. Some clauses can stand alone as a complete sentence; others cannot. Below are a few examples of clauses:

Example 1: She danced. (“She” is the subject. “Danced” is both the verb and the predicate. Even though the clause is only two words, it functions as an independent clause because it can stand alone as a sentence.)

Example 2: While she is dancing, the audience cannot tear its eyes off her.

In Example 2, there are actually two clauses. The first “while she is dancing” contains a subject (she) and a predicate (is dancing), but it cannot stand alone as a sentence, making it a dependent clause. The second clause, “the audience cannot tear its eyes off her,” contains a subject (the audience) and a predicate (tear its eyes off her), and because it can function as a sentence on its own, it is an independent clause.

What are phrases?

A phrase is a group of two or more words that does not have the subject and verb combination and does not form a predicate. It can contain a noun or a verb, but does not have a subject or predicate. Essentially, a phrase provides some sort of additional information or provides more context to the sentences you write. A phrase can never stand alone as a sentence; however, a phrase can nestle itself inside clauses that are either complete sentences on their own or ones that are dependent on the rest of the sentence. When a phrase is within a clause, it functions as a part of speech. Below are a few examples of a phrase:

Example 3: The dance was held at the reception hall. (“At the reception hall” is a prepositional phrase. It does not have a subject or predicate, and it cannot stand alone as a sentence.)

Example 2 revisited: While she is dancing, the audience cannot tear its eyes off her.

In Example 2 revisited, “off her” is a prepositional phrase that is nestled within the independent clause identified earlier. It does not contain a subject/predicate, nor can it stand alone as a sentence.

Understanding the difference

It is vital to understand the main differences between clauses and phrases to ensure your writing is clear in both construction and context. If you are unsure whether a group of words is a clause or phrase, break down the words into the parts of speech to help you decide. If there is a subject and a verb with a predicate, it is a clause. If there is a noun but no verb or a verb but no noun and does not have a predicate, it is a phrase. Always keep in mind that sometimes phrases are built into clauses.

Types of clauses

The two main types of clauses are independent and dependent. These are covered in a separate article on if you feel you need more help in distinguishing between the two. In addition, the following types of clauses are used in constructing sentences:

  • Adverbial clauses
  • Defining and non-defining clauses (also called adjective or relative clauses)
  • Independent and dependent clauses
  • Noun clauses

Types of phrases

Phrases can take many forms and different constructions. They cannot however, ever function as a sentence on their own. The different types of phrases include the following:

  • Gerund phrases
  • Infinitive phrases
  • Noun phrases
  • Participle phrases
  • Prepositional phrases
  • Verb phrases