Phrases and Clauses: Definition and Usage

Phrases and Clauses are considered a smaller set of terms within an English sentence that serves different purposes. To put it another way, the phrase and the clause are a "group" or "cluster" of words that are fundamental components of an English sentence. They connect with the "parts of speech" of a sentence that convey a sensible message. Like parts of speech, phrases and clauses are made up of basic English vocabulary and English grammar. Usually, a clause consists of one or more than one phrases, but a phrase never has a clause in it. Understanding the phrase and the clause helps construct proper and meaningful sentences which will improve your written and oral English.

For understanding the primary usage of the phrase and the clause in the sentence, you must develop familiarity with the topic of "subject and predicate".  Let us first understand what we mean by subject and predicate:

What is Subject and Predicate?

When we speak or write English, we generally use a group of words that make complete sense. For eg.

"She is sitting in a corner."

"Jack is playing with his puppy."

These words, when put together, form a sentence. When we make a sentence like this, we:

  • Name some "person" or "thing" = subject
  • Say something about or define the action of that person or thing = predicate

The person or thing mentioned directly or indirectly in the sentence we speak or write is known as the subject of the sentence. The rest of the sentence that delivers information about the subject is called the predicate of the sentence.

The subject of the sentence usually comes first, but sometimes it can also come after the predicate. These types of sentences are known as "imperative" or "descriptive". For eg.

  • Here are the children.
  • Move out of my way!
  • Sweet are the uses of adversity.

In some imperative sentences, the subject is automatically understood. Such as,

  • Pass the salt.
  • Thank the lord.
  • This is not done.

Phrases and Clauses: What is a Phrase?

Collins Dictionary defines a phrase as a "short group of words that people often use as a way of saying something" or "a small group of words that forms a unit, either on its own or within a sentence". Phrases are usually an excerpt of a sentence that make some amount of sense but not complete sense. The meaning of a phrase is usually not clear due to the absence of subject or sometimes a verb in it. Some Examples of phrases are stated as under:

  • The singing of birds delighted us.
  • Borrowed garments never fit well.
  • The dewdrops glitter in the sunshine.
  • It was a sunset of great beauty.
  • Let me teach you how to knit sweaters.

The words marked in bold are known as phrases. Here phrases are acting as a single unit and comprise of at most one grammatical function. They are also adding depth to the overall meaning of the sentence. Phrases are generally of 9-10 types:

 Noun A single word or a cluster of words containing a noun and functioning in the sentence as a subject, object or a predicate. The noun phrase can also be stated as a pronoun.  John came early today.

Noun Phrase: John
Pronoun alternate:  He came early today.

The Portuguese people were preparing for the carnival.

Noun Phrase: Portuguese People.
Pronoun alternate: They were preparing for the carnival.
Adjective  A word or a group of words that describes a noun or a pronoun in the sentence. It can be placed either before or after the noun or a pronoun in the sentence. Hardworking employees are usually underpaid.
Adjectival Phrase: Hardworking

Cindy was merely anxious to give the presentation in front of her class.
Adjectival Phrase: Merely anxious
A verb phrase is that part of a sentence that holds the verb and the object of the sentence. Usually, the object is dependent on the verb.
I can smell the fantastic dinner.
Verb Phrase: can smell

This car may be worth a million dollars!
Verb Phrase: may be worth
An adverb phrase is a cluster of 2 or more words that function as an adverb (adjective describing the verb) in a sentence. Just like the way an adverb modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb, an adverb phrase of two or more words can further explain a verb, adverb and adjective.
Park the car right here perpendicular to the wall.
Adverbial Phrase: right here perpendicular to the wall.

(note: this phrase also includes a prepositional phrase I.e perpendicular to the wall)

She handled the situation surprisingly well.
Adverbial Phrase: surprising well.

A prepositional phrase is a group of words comprising a preposition, an object and any words that complement the object. Usually, a prepositional phrase complements a verb in form of an adverbial phrase and noun in form of an adjectival phrase.

I always buy groceries from the best buy on main street.
Prepositional Phrase: on main street.

The camel is found in the midst of the Sahara.
Prepositional Phrase: in the midst of Sahara
Gerund  A gerund phrase is a phrase containing a gerund and any modifiers or predicate associated with it. A gerund is a noun made from the root of a verb + ing (3rd form of tense). They will always function as subject, subject complements or predicate.

Walking bare feet on a hot sunny morning.
Gerund Phrase: Walking bare feet.

Eating while sleeping is a dangerous activity.
Gerund Phrase: Eating while sleeping.
Infinitive   An infinitive phrase is a combination of verb and other objects or modifiers in a sentence. The infinitive phrase is usually the direct object of the sentence. To sleep under the stars with a book is my only salvation.
Infinitive Phrase: To sleep under the stars with a book.

A good way of scoring in an exam is to study during morning hours
Infinitive Phrase: To study during morning hours.

This sums up the topic of “phrases”. Now, let us understand how to identify clauses within a sentence.

Clauses: Definition and Usage

Until now, we learnt about what phrases are and how to identify different sorts of phrases within a sentence. Now, before we learn about clauses, our next topic, let us look at some examples:

  • People who borrow money unnecessarily cannot be relied on.
  • I think that you have chosen the wrong tarot card.

If we closely look at the first sentence, it contains both subject and a predicate. In the first sentence, the subject is addressed as “Who” and the predicate is “borrow money unnecessarily”. In the second sentence, subject is “you” and the predicate is “have chosen the wrong tarot card”. Both these sentences contain one defined or undefined subject and a respective predicate. Such sentences are known as clauses.


A clause is a group or cluster of words that work as one part of speech. It usually includes a subject and verb or predicate of the subject. A clause is different from a phrase, which does not contain a subject and sometimes, even the verb. A clause can function as an adjective, adverb or noun.

Note: The disparity between these phrases and a clause will be clearer to you once you start practicing and solving the examples. 20 sentences each day will help you master the art of phrases and clauses.

Types of clauses

There are two major types of clauses

  • Independent clause
  • Dependent Clause

Let us understand what we mean by both of them:

  • Independent clauses (can work as a sentence on its own): Independent clauses are a group or cluster of words that not only contains both subject and predicate, but also makes complete sense as a standalone sentence. Most of the time, these types of clauses are present in complex sentences. In international exams, these clauses are connected to other dependent or independent clauses to make it more challenging to figure out the answer. Given below are a few examples of independent clauses. The ones marked in bold are independent clauses:
    • The police had caught the thief, who was trying to escape.
    • Do you know the man who came to the party yesterday?
    • I am not completing the homework until I get a new notebook
    • When it snows, the Eskimos go inside their igloos.

Point to note: Independent clauses can also be joined by a conjunction or a semicolon. Conjunctions like yet, and, because etc. can be used to join two sentences. Here are a couple of examples of independent clauses with conjunction and semicolon usage:

  • The movie was a lot of fun, yet sleeping is a better option.
  • I went to the airport, but I misplaced my ticket.
  • Helen got us the food; I took care of the drinks.
  • This is my favorite destination; Seychelles is another favorite.

In the above sentences, it is clearly visible that the parts mark in bold can function as independent clauses and are decipherable on their own. However, they are joined through a conjunction or semicolon to yet another independent clause.

2. Dependent clause (supporting part of a sentence): A dependent(subordinate/supporting) clause cannot make complete sense as a sentence as it does not specify the complete meaning or thought of the speaker. It also contains a subject and a predicate, but still lacks some information. Here are a few examples to be considered: 

  • The crew could see the fossil remains, which were hidden since centuries.
  • The intellect of a human being lies in how he communicates with the less unfortunate, rather than how much he earns.

In the above sentences, we noticed that the parts of the sentence which are marked in bold are not able to convey the complete information of the speaker, even after containing a subject and a predicate. These types of sentences are known as dependent clauses.

Sentence Usage of clauses

By now, you must have understood how to identify clauses within a sentence. However, clauses serve a variety of purposes in the sentence. It can act as a noun, an adjective or an adverb. This below table explains how to identify noun clauses, adjectival clauses and adverbial clauses in a sentence:

Noun Clauses

Adjectival Clauses

Adverbial Clauses

    1. Whoever thought of the plan was wrong.


    2. Whichever road you pick is fine with my mother.


    3. Regular follow-up is how we can earn more customers. (Noun clause identifying the noun- follow-up).

Kale, which people do not prefer, is slimming.



People who are intelligent know the traffic rules.


I can remember the time when smartphones weren’t a thing.
(Adjectival clause identifying time)

After my root canal, I had kebabs for dinner because I couldn't chew properly.


The pigeon ran away once it spotted the bird-catcher.


My mother wiped the floor until her back hurt. (Adverbial clause identifying how she wiped the floor)

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