logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Phrase structures

phrase structures

Analysing phrases is a basic language analysis skill.

Can you understand what is meant by the graphic above if you are given this example?
    The old man almost certainly had lived through very interesting times
Click here for an answer.

You will see that two of these phrases consist of only one word.  In language analysis one word counts as a phrase.


The structure of a phrase

To explain this, we will take a simple noun phrase:

the old man in the boat

Phrases come in three parts like this:

The Head
In a noun phrase this will be the noun, in a Verb phrase it will be the verb, in an Adjective phrase, it will be the adjective and so on.  This is the part of the phrase which cannot be omitted.  In one-word phrases, this is the only part.
In our example, the Head is man.
The pre-Head string
This is a pre-modifier and is optional.
In our example, the pre-Head string is made up of a determiner (the) and an adjective (old).
The post-Head string
This is also optional and is a post-modifier.
In our example, the post-Head string is a prepositional phrase made up of a preposition (in) plus a noun phrase which consists of a determiner (the) plus a noun (boat).

Removing the pre-Head or post-Head strings is possible because you end up with a simple noun, man which can function alone as the subject of a verb.  Removing the Head leaves nonsense:
    *the old in the boat
It is true that removing the determiner often leaves an inaccurate phrase in English but that is to do with how articles are used in the language.  Other languages manage quite well without them.

Now we can look briefly at each sort of phrase and see how it is constructed.


The noun phrase

The noun phrase normally functions as the subject or object of a verb.  In our first example,
    The old man almost certainly had lived through very interesting times
we have two noun phrases:

  • the old man – a pre-modified noun (determiner plus adjective) with no post-modification
  • very interesting times – one plural noun with pre-modification by an adjective phrase

Noun phrases can be much more complex than this and be very long.  For example:

The long-awaited train for London and the airport which was very late finally arrived at the over-crowded platform under the bridge

In this sentence, we have two examples of noun phrases, both of which have pre-Head strings and post-Head strings.  In other words the Heads (train and platform) are both pre- and post-modified.
The noun train is pre-modified by:
    The long-awaited (determiner plus adjective)
and post-modified by:
    for London (preposition and its noun-phrase complement, London)
The noun platform is pre-modified in the same way with:
    the over-crowded (determiner plus adjective)
and post-modified by:
    under the bridge (preposition plus its complement noun phrase)
For more on modification of noun phrases, see the guide.

The Head of a noun phrase is not always a noun:

  • He arrived late – a simple, unmodified pronoun as the noun phrase
  • Those are what I want – a demonstrative pronoun as the noun phrase
  • These with the blue pattern are better – a post-modified demonstrative pronoun as the noun phrase
  • Four arrived together – a numeral as a noun phrase
  • Anyone who needs help will get it – a post-modified pronoun as the noun phrase
  • Those two don't need to wait – a numeral pre-modified with a demonstrative as the noun phrase
  • My brother, James, is not here – a complex noun phrase with two nouns in apposition, the first pre-modified by a genitive

Why is it important to find the Head?

Take a moment to think about that and then click here.


The adverb phrase

walking slowly away  

If you have followed the guide to word class, you'll know what adverbs do.  There are also guides to adverbs and adverbials on this site so this is not the place to explain the difference.

Commonly, adverb phrases consist of an unmodified Head.  Pre-modification is also quite common and post-modification is possible but rarer:

  • She ran quite quicklya pre-modified adverb phrase of manner post-modifying the verb
  • That's completely idiotic – a single-word adverb phrase pre-modifying an adjective
  • Luckily for her, the train arrived earlyan adverb phrase with a post-modifying post-Head prepositional phrase (for her).  There is also the post-modification of the verb with the adverb phrase, early.

Adverb phrase pre-Head strings are usually other adverbs and adverb phrase post-Heads are often prepositional phrases.


The verb phrase

He bravely dived into the freezing water

Verb phrases often consist of single verbs but can get quite complicated with pre-modifying adverb phrases and post-modifying adverbials, often prepositional phrases:

  • He arriveda one-word verb phrase
  • She slowly realised the trutha verb phrase with an adverb phrase pre-Head (slowly) and a noun-phrase post-Head as its object (the truth)
  • He can't come at that timea verb phrase with a pre-Head consisting of a modal verb (can) and a negator (n't) and a post-Head prepositional phrase (at that time)
  • Never talk like that again! – a verb phrase with a pre-Head negator (Never) and two post-Head adverbials (like that and again)
  • He eventually started to enjoy himself at the partya verb phrase with a pre-Head adverb phrase (eventually) and a post-Head non-finite verb phrase (to enjoy himself) followed by a second post-Head prepositional phrase (at the party)

Many verbs require a post-head noun phrase.  They are always transitive.  Some, ditransitive, verbs can take two post-Head noun phrases.  For example:
    I gave him the money (two post-Head noun phrases, him and the money)
    She lit the fire in the living room
(one post-Head noun phrase, as the object of the verb, the fire) and a post-Head prepositional phrase, in the living room)
Some verbs cannot have a post-Head noun phrase because they are intransitive.  For example,
    He yawned loudly (a post-Head adverbial phrase only)
    He dived into the pool
(a post-Head prepositional phrase, not a noun phrase)
Some verbs can do both.  For example,
    She smoked rapidly (an intransitive verb phrase with a post-Head adverb phrase, rapidly)
    She rapidly smoked a cigarette
(a transitive use of the verb with a pre-Head adverbial modifier, rapidly, and a post-Head noun phrase, a cigarette)
There is a guide to transitivity on this site.


The prepositional phrase

There is a separate guide to prepositional phrases on this site.
Here, it's enough to note that these phrases usually consist of a Head (the preposition) and the post-Head string (usually a noun phrase) that is called the preposition complement.  Some examples will do:

  • He waited at the station on the South bank – two prepositional phrases containing the preposition itself (at / on) and the noun complements (the station / the South bank)
  • He lives at 350, 22nd Streeta prepositional phrase with the preposition, at, and a compound noun complement (22nd Street)
  • At four o'clock, the fun begins – this prepositional time phrase pre-modifies the verb but is separated from it by the noun phrase.  It can be shifted to the end with no loss in meaning but users of the language may front it for emphasis.


The adjective phrase

Adjective phrases are often single adjectives but they can have a pre-Head (usually an adverb phrase) and may have a post-Head (often an adverbial or a prepositional phrase but sometimes a non-finite verb phrase):

  • Jean was happya one-word adjective phrase, happy, used predicatively (after the noun and linked to it by a copular verb)
  • A truly enormous aeroplane came into land – an adjective phrase pre-modified by the pre-Head adverb phrase
  • He is oddly afraid of cats – this adjective phrase has the pre-Head adverb phrase, oddly, but it must have a post-Head noun phrase.  There are a few adjectives that do this and they include: fond (of), conscious (of), uncertain (of) etc.
  • I'm pleased to say that he has arrived an adjective phrase with a non-finite verb-phrase post-Head

wheels within wheels

Phrases within phrases

Many of the examples in this guide contain wheels within wheels.
For example, a noun phrase such as:

The obviously completely crazy woman with the flaming red hair is clearly going to make a very long speech to us all

contains phrases within phrases.  When you have sorted it all out, click here.

That's all quite complicated and not the level of analysis that most learners need.  Teachers, however, need to be able to do this in order to present language clearly and at a level of complexity that the learners can manage.
Unpacking all the data is something native speakers do almost unconsciously, of course.



This guide is mostly to do with phrase structure but would be incomplete without some mention of stress.

We can, of course, stress any of the words in a phrase to signal its importance.  For example, compare:

  1. I went to London with my brother
  2. I went to London with my brother

In sentence 1., the stress falls on the first syllable of London signifying that the speaker considers this the most important (i.e., probably new) information.  In sentence 2., the stress falls on the first syllable of brother because the speaker wants to emphasise the importance of that piece of information.
We can, naturally, stress any of the elements in the sentence to show its significance:

  • I went to London (not she)
  • I went to London with my brother (not am going)
  • I went to London with my brother (not from)
  • I went to London with my brother (not Amsterdam)
  • I went to London with my brother (not separately from him)
  • I went to London with my brother (not his brother)
  • I went to London with my brother (not my sister)

These are examples of special stress used for emphasis and, as such phenomena occur in all languages, most learners do not find it too challenging.
What we need is some kind of general, canonical rule for our learners so they know which bit of the phrase to stress.

If you have followed the guide to intonation on this site, you will be familiar with the concept of tonic stress which usually falls towards the end of a tone unit.  Where would you put the stress normally (not for special emphasis) on the following?  Click on the graphic when you have an answer.

phrase stress 1

Now try this set.  Where would you normally expect the stress to fall?

phrase stress 3

What happens when a phrase contains both a pre- and a post-modifier?

phrase stress5

Unless you can recognise Heads, pre-Heads and post-Heads, of course, you can't identify any of this.  That means you can't teach it consistently and your learners won't stress things appropriately.


Teaching implications

All the above is not just an exercise in categorisation and nitpicking; it actually has significant implications for the way we present language.

  1. All languages exhibit these fundamental units of meaning and learners will actively look for patterns in the language we present.  If we present overly complex phrase structures, especially at lower levels, we make that identification harder and less productive.
  2. Phrases, rather than individual words, are, arguably, the units we use to put language together in our heads.  If that's the case, being able to distinguish between phrase types will be a key skill when it comes to using a language.
  3. Being able to parse a sentence into its constituent phrases makes understanding it much simpler because we know what or who is doing what to what or whom.
    For example, if we encounter:
    grumpy man
    The grumpy old man in the deckchair suddenly and for no reason shouted at the kids with the football
    and we know about phrase structure, we can reduce the sentence to:
    The man shouted at the kids
    and then it's simple to get the gist of what we read or hear.  And that's often all we need to function effectively in English.
  4. Knowing that a simple noun will be the Head of a noun phrase, a verb the Head of a verb phrase and so on allows learners to decide what in the pre- and post-modifying text can safely be ignored for the purposes of understanding the gist.
  5. Knowing what the head of a phrase is allows learners to stress the elements accurately in speech.

There is a test on this.

Related guides
intonation for an explanation of tonic stress
modification for more on modification of noun phrases
adverbs for a guide to this word class
clauses for a general guide to clause structures
nominal clauses for an analysis of the ways clauses can act as noun phrases
transitivity for some consideration of types of verbs
prepositional phrases for more on these with links to other guides
constituents for a guide to how phrases can be ambiguous and how to disambiguate them