logo ELT Concourse teacher training: The Bridge

The Bridge: Phrases


Phrases are the building blocks of clauses and sentences.  Without understanding how they work, it is almost impossible to make a correctly formed sentence in any language.

? First off, look at this sentence and decide what each word is doing and what you would call them.
Then click here for the answer.

Coffee often keeps me awake at night

That is not, however, the end of the story because we can produce an alternative phrase analysis which is more useful for teaching purposes.  It looks like this:

Here's the phrase analysis:
subject noun phrase verb phrase object noun phrase adjective phrase prepositional phrase
Coffee often keeps me awake at night

You will see that three of these phrases consist of only one word.  In language analysis one word counts as a phrase.
In a strict analysis, often keeps is not a verb phrase because a verb phrase can only contain verbs.  Therefore, for example, has kept, was keeping, kept, may have kept, wanted to keep etc. all count as verb phrases because they only contain verb forms.  However, because adverbs are so closely related to verbs, it generally makes sense to classify the verb plus an adverb as a verb phrase for teaching purposes.

? Now try this for yourself with a slightly more complicated but structurally parallel sentence.
Then click here for the answer.

Drinking too much coffee very often keeps me and my husband fully awake all through the night

We can refine this analysis further by looking at each phrase and seeing what are called its constituents.  This makes the analysis more accurate because it reveals the internal nature of the phrases.  A verb phrase, for example, usually contains only verb forms as we saw above so calling very often keeps a verb phrase in itself is actually inaccurate.  We do it like this:

Here's the phrase analysis:
subject noun phrase verb phrase object noun phrase adjective phrase prepositional phrase
noun phrase noun phrase adverb phrase verb phrase object pronoun phrase coordinating conjunction noun phrase adverb phrase adjective phrase determiner preposition prepositional complement noun phrase
Drinking too much coffee  very often keeps me and my husband fully awake all through the night

Phrases, in other words, can exist within other phrases.  Above, we have a noun phrase which contains two noun phrases, a verb phrase made up of an adverb phrase and a verb, another noun phrase made up of a pronoun, a coordinating conjunction and another noun phrase and a prepositional phrase which comes in three parts.


Making sense for learners

There are some good reasons to analyse at the level of phrases rather than words when presenting structures to learners:

  1. It is actually quite rare for phrases to consist of only one word unless they are proper-noun subjects or objects.  Common, countable noun phrases, in particular, are minimally made up of a determiner and a noun and frequently contain adjectives.  Identifying the main noun and the grammatical function of the whole phrase is crucial to understanding.  It makes sense, therefore to understand
        The man with the dog ...
    as the subject of
        ... was walking in the park
    rather than to try to break the noun phrase into five separate words and understand them individually before reassembling the meaning.
  2. There is some evidence that all languages operate in a similar manner, combining phrases to make longer clauses and sentences so, intuitively, phrase rather than word analysis will be accessible for all learners.  Most languages (no, not all) will contain equivalents of what are called the big four:
        Noun phrases
        Verb phrases
        Adverb phrases
        Adjective phrases
  3. When it comes to production, getting learners away from word-level analysis and aware of phrases they can use in parallel ways makes their speaking and writing more impressive, more expressive and more fluent.

However, in order to teach phrases, we need to know how they can be analysed.  The simplest and most usual way is to identify three parts.  We'll use this phrase as our example and chop it into three parts:

The young woman in the corner

  1. The main noun here, without which the phrase makes no sense, is called the Head and it consists of the noun woman.  Removing the head from a phrase leaves nonsense.  Try it.
  2. The two words before the Head are called, obviously enough, the Pre-head and they are a determiner (the article the) and an adjective (young).  Pre-heads can be quite long so we could have had, for example:
        The young, attractive but obviously bored woman ...
    The Head remains the same.
  3. The last three word constitute, again rather obviously, the Post-head.  In this case, the Post-head is the prepositional phrase made up of in plus its noun-phrase complement, the corner.  In some analyses, the corner is described as the object of the preposition because that is how it acts.  We'll avoid that description, reserving object and subject for verbs and verb phrases.
    Again, Post-heads can be quite long and are often relative pronoun or relative adverb clauses so we could have had:
        ... woman who is standing in the corner wearing a red dress and drinking a cocktail
    The Head remains the single noun woman.

Now it's your turn to do some phrase constituent analysis.

? There are three parts to all these phrases.  When you have identified them, click on the eye open for the answers.

often speaks out of turn
eye open
the long-awaited train for London
eye open
these three exceedingly beautiful, Chinese vases
eye open
in front of the house and slightly to the left
eye open
extremely carefully downhill
eye open
The very beautiful French clocks that I hopefully took to the auction didn't sell for very much
eye open


So how does this help?

We averred above that this is a way of making sense for learners.  How?

  1. If learners can pick out the heads of phrases when they read or hear anything, they can easily ignore pre- and post-heads that they don't understand.  For example, in:
        The government-sponsored scheme to help old people remain independently at home proved hugely expensive
    We have:
    Head of a noun phrase (scheme)
    Head of a verb phrase (proved)
    Head of an attributive adjective phrase (expensive)
    Identifying the Heads allows the meaning to be extracted:
        scheme proved expensive
    and that's almost all you need to know.
    For obvious reasons, this makes listening and reading a surer and more reliable event.
  2. If learners can be encouraged to introduce pre- and post-heads in what they say or write, it makes their production more accurate, more fluent and more interesting so instead of:
        My town is on the Rhine.  The town is old and beautiful.  It is a good place to visit in the summer.
    we might get:
        My ancient home town which is on Germany's major River Rhine is a beautiful place to visit in the summer.
    That's not difficult to do but learners need careful training to get the trick of pre- and post-modifying the heads of their phrases so that they don't write three sentences when one will do.

? Take a final test on some of all this.

If that's all clear enough to you, you can go on to the guides below (on the right).  If you still feel slightly confused, try the links on the left.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
essentials of subjects and objects phrases
essentials of modification an overview of modification
essentials of relative clauses prepositional phrases
essentials of sentence grammar relative pronoun clauses
sentences and clauses index syntax index