logo  ELT Concourse: a short language analysis course
Concourse 2

Phrase structure

structure
 

define

Defining terms

A phrase is a small group of words which together form a single conceptual unit.  A phrase acts grammatically in exactly the same way as a single word.  For example, in:
    I like fish
the word fish is the object of the verb like and is a single-part lexeme.
In:
    I like well-cooked, boneless fish
the phrase well, cooked boneless fish is still functioning as the object of the verb like.
We think in phrases so phrase structure is an important area to analyse.


variety

Different types of phrases

In the section on word class, you encountered the main functions of lexemes.  Phrases perform very similar functions so will be easy to identify.
In what follows, you need to understand that the term phrase can be used for a single lexeme or a combination of lexemes.  The lexeme table is a noun but it is also a noun phrase.
In what follows, use your knowledge of the functions of lexemes to decide what the parts in green bold are doing in these sentences.  When you have made up your mind, click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

The young woman bought the car
eye open
The young woman is a noun phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single noun such as
Mary.
It is functioning as a single noun and the subject of the verb
bought.  (The subject of a verb is the person or thing which performs the action or is in the state.)
She almost certainly paid too much
eye open
almost certainly is an adverb phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single adverb such as
quickly.
It is functioning to tell us the speaker's attitude to the verb
paid.
She should definitely have paid less
eye open
should definitely have paid less is a verb phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single verb such as
paid.
It is functioning to tell us two things:
a) the speaker's attitude to the verb (using
should)
b) the time in which the verb is understood (past, in this case).
She took the money from the bank
eye open
from the bank is a prepositional phrase.
The preposition is
from and the bank is called the prepositional complement.
It is functioning to link the verb with the place and explain where she took
the money from.
She decided it was a beautiful and affordable car
eye open
beautiful and affordable is an adjective phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single adjective such as
nice.
It is functioning to modify the noun
car.
She drove her brand-new red motor car very carefully
eye open
her brand-new red motor car is another noun phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single noun or a pronoun such as
it.
It is functioning as a single noun and the object of the verb
drove.  (The object of a verb is the thing or person on which the verb acts.)

embed

Embedding

Phrases can be embedded within phrases, like this:

the young woman
This is analysed above as a noun phrase (and it is) although it contains an adjective phrase (young).  In the same way, the noun phrase her brand-new red motor car contains an embedded adjective phrase.
should definitely have paid less
This is called a verb phrase above (and it is) but it contains two embedded adverb phrases: definitely and less.  Remember that phrases in this analysis can be single words.
from the bank
This is a prepositional phrase and has a noun phrase (the bank) embedded in it acting as its complement.

Embedding is common.  We frequently embed adjective phrases inside noun phrases and adverb phrases inside verb phrases and noun phrases are almost always seen when a preposition is used at all, helping to make up the prepositional phrase.


head

Heads, pre-heads and post-heads of phrases

One key idea to understand about phrases is the Head because this is the central concept of the phrase.
For example:

The young woman in red
The lexeme woman is the Head of this phrase.  There is a pre-head (the young) and a post-head (in red).  We say that the noun is pre-modified, with a determiner and an adjective, and post-modified, with a prepositional phrase.
certainly bought hurriedly
The verb bought is the Head of this verb phrase.  It is pre-modified by an adverb phrase (certainly) and post-modified by another one (hurriedly).
the red car with the yellow roof
The noun car is the Head of this phrase.  The pre-head modifier is a determiner plus an adjective, the red.  The post-head modifier is a prepositional phrase, with the yellow roof.

Phrases can sometimes become separated but the analysis of what is the Head, what is the pre-head and what is the post-head stays the same.  Like this:

The young woman in red certainly bought the red car with the yellow roof hurriedly.

Here, the adverb hurriedly is the post-head modifier of the verb phrase but it has become separated from the verb and sent to the end of the sentence.  It still forms part of the verb phrase.

Phrases can only have one Head but they can have many pre- and post-head elements.  For example, can you analyse this?  Find the Heads of the phrases and then identify the pre- and post-head modifiers.
Click here when you have done that.

The old man travelling by bicycle, exhausted and unhappy at the end of his journey through the county happily arrived at his hotel eventually.

ingredients

Constituents of phrases

When analysing phrases, we need to understand which bit is modifying what.  For example, in the sentence:
    She bought the car with the red roof
it is clear that with the red roof post-modifies the Head car.  You can't say
    She bought with the red roof
so the prepositional phrase obviously modifies the car.

However, in
    She photographed the dog in the garden
it is not so clear: Was the dog in the garden?  Was she in the garden?  Were they both in the garden?
We can say
    In the garden, she photographed the dog
and
    It was the dog in the garden that she photographed
and the meaning becomes clear.

If in the garden modifies the Head dog it is the dog which was in the garden and she could have been outside the garden, in the house or in the road, for example.  She could have been in a low-flying aircraft for all we know.
If in the garden modifies the verb phrase photographed, on the other hand, we know that the action took place there and that the dog was also in the garden or the preposition would have been from (She photographed the dog from the garden).

All this means that we have to be clear what the constituents of the phrases are.  Either it is
Noun phrase as the object of the verb: the dog in the garden
or
Verb phrase: photographed in the garden

Try this for yourself with:

She spoke to the man from the big house on the corner.

What are the two possible meanings and how does this change the analysis?
Click here when you have your answer.


test

Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a very short test of your knowledge of phrase analysis.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

If you got that all right, it is safe to move on.

The next part of this section considers how clauses work in English.  Click here to go on.