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Concourse 2

Unit 9: sentences – clauses and phrases


Elsewhere in this course, reference has occasionally been made to sentences, clauses and phrases.  Now it is time to take a closer look at what these terms mean.

Briefly, here are some working definitions starting from the bottom up:

A phrase is a group of words performing a single grammatical function.
For example, in
    Water damages paper
we have three words performing three functions, as you know, like this:
  1. water: the noun acting as the subject
  2. damages: the verb
  3. paper: a noun acting as the object
However, we can also have a sentence which appears much more complicated such as
    The woman over there has been to see the new film on at the Odeon
and here we have three phrases doing the same things:
  1. The woman over there: the noun phrase acting as the subject
  2. has been to see: the verb phrase
  3. the new film on at the Odeon: a noun phrase acting as the object
If you have followed Unit 2, concerned with word class, this will be familiar ground.  Phrases are sometimes single words, sometimes many words, but they perform a single grammatical function so it makes sense to talk about word and phrase class.
Clauses are groups of words which contain verbs.
For example, all these are clauses and they, too, can perform some important grammatical roles.
    I wanted to see the film
    She arrived
    because he was lonely
    He came home
    He made himself dinner
    Slowly opening the door
    He crept in

These examples are of three different kinds and that will be explained shortly.
Just as phrases can consist of more than one word and clauses usually do, sentences can consist of one clause or more than one (sometimes many more).
Section C of Unit 4 was concerned with conjunctions and there it was explained that there is a difference between coordination and subordination.
There are four types of sentences:
  1. simple sentences contain a single clause, such as:
        John packed his suitcase
  2. compound sentences contain two (or more) coordinated clauses which can potentially stand alone such as:
        She took the money from the bank, went back to the shop and bought the coat
  3. complex sentences contain a main clause and a subordinate clause as in
        I told her the truth because she asked
  4. compound-complex sentences contain a combination of coordination and subordination as in:
        He came home and fed the cat because he had forgotten in the morning before he sat down to watch the TV
We will assume in what follows that the distinction between these four kinds of sentence is clear.
To check, try this test.

The rest of this unit considers phrases, clauses and how they are linked to make a text hang together along with an analysis of a particular sentence type.

Here's the menu and, as usual, clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of any section will return you to it.

Section Looking at:
A Phrases
The five main sorts of these.
B Clauses
Finite and non-finite.  Parsing a sentence.
C Cohesion and coherence
How texts hang together.
D Conditionals
A particular type of complex sentence with special characteristics.

Section A: phrases


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
It is functioning as a single noun and the subject of the verb
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
It is functioning to tell us the speaker's attitude to the verb
She should have paid less
eye open
should have paid is a verb phrase.
It is possible to replace it with a single verb such as
It is functioning to tell us two things:
a) the speaker's attitude to the verb (using
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 or object.
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 with a double head.
It is possible to replace it with a single adjective such as
It is functioning to modify the noun
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 is functioning as a single noun and the object of the verb



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 (and it is) but it contains two embedded adverb phrases: definitely and less.  Remember that phrases in this analysis can be single words.  A verb phrase strictly seen contains only verb forms so the verb phrase is should have paid and the adverbials, definitely and less modify the verb phrase.  For teaching purposes, because verb phrases often contain embedded adverbials, it makes sense to treat them as single units.
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.


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 noun 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, in fact, the phrase only consists of the single word.  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.
the more expensive car
Here, we have chosen an adjective phrase of which, obviously, the adjective expensive is its Head.  It is pre-modified by the adverb more to make it a comparative form.
the car directly in front of the garage
Here, we have the complex preposition, in front of, which forms the Head of the prepositional phrase.  It has a complement (or object to some), the garage and is pre-modified by the adverb directly.
drove very quickly
Here, we have an adverb phrase with its Head, quickly and that is pre-modified by another intensifying adverb, very.

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.

Phrases can usually 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 eye when you have done that.

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


Constituents of clauses

When analysing clauses, 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
    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 clauses are.  Either it is
Noun phrase as the object of the verb: the dog in the garden
Verb phrase (post modified by a prepositional 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 eye when you have an answer.


Learn more

in the in-service section.


Take a test

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


Section B: clauses


He waited outside

Clauses are independent units of meaning.  They are, grammatically, phrases which contain at least one verb phrase.  Compare, for example the items here.  The bits on the right are clauses; those on the left are phrases:

Phrases Clauses
in the huge garden he arrived
very, very slowly playing the piano
an old dog to help with the cooking
the woman on the corner she obviously left early
the engineer's wife going slowly under the bridge

All the chunks on the right here contain a verb of some sort but none on the left does.
However, if you have spotted that only he arrived and she left early can stand alone as pieces of intelligible language, you have noticed something rather important.  A definition of a clause used in many traditional grammars is that it is a unit containing a subject and its predicate.


Finite and Non-finite clauses

In this analysis, we will be using the term clause for any group of words containing a verb phrase but will distinguish between finite and non-finite clauses.


Matrix and Subordinate clauses

In geology, a matrix is a fine-grained rock in which other minerals are embedded and the definition will hold quite well for our purposes.
Consider these two sentences:

  1. She saw the dog wanted food
  2. She saw the dog wanted to eat something
In sentence 1., we have two clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted food
The Subordinate clause embedded in the matrix: the dog wanted food
Both of these clauses are finite because the verb is marked for tense (and in many languages would also be marked for aspect and person).
In sentence 2., we have three clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause A: the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause B: to eat something
Both the Matrix clause and Subordinate clause A are finite clauses with the verb marked for tense (saw and wanted respectively).
Subordinate clause A is embedded in the Matrix clause.
Subordinate clause B is embedded in Subordinate clause A and is non-finite (the verb, to eat, is unmarked for person or tense).
Subordinate clause A, therefore, is the Matrix clause for Subordinate B.

This means, if you are following, that the terms Matrix and Subordinate are relative.  A subordinate clause can be the matrix clause for its own subordinate clause.
In many cases (as in these examples) the Matrix clause and the sentence are the same.  That needn't be the case because we can have, e.g.,
Mary came home when she finished work and John left as soon as he saw her.
In which we have two Matrix clauses both with an embedded Subordinate clause (of time) but only one sentence.

If you prefer a graphical representation:

clause embedding



There are two important points:

  1. All matrix clauses must be finite clauses
  2. Subordinate clauses can be finite or non-finite

Non-finite clauses contain one of the following verb forms:

Finite verb forms will always be marked for tense (even if as in, e.g., They come late, the marking for tense is the absence of a change to the verb or an ending) and often for person, too, as in e.g., He comes late.


Verbless clauses

This sounds like a contradiction in terms because we have just defined a clause as a unit containing a verb phrase.  At times, however, we can leave out the verb because it will be easily understood.  We also, incidentally, often have to leave out the verb's subject as well.
Here are some examples:

Leaving out the finite verb phrase
If possible, come before six (= If it is possible, come before six)
Whether now or later, we'll get it done (= Whether we do it now or later, we'll get it done)
These clauses often contain conjunctions such as whether, whenever, where etc.
Leaving out a non-finite verb phrase
Too tired to cook, I went straight to bed (= Being too tired to cook, I went straight to bed)
There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many highly paid (= There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many being highly paid)

Verbless clauses are sometimes called defective clauses or even simply small clauses.


Parsing a sentence: tree diagrams

Parsing a sentence means identifying and isolating the clauses and phrases (and the words which make them up).
It can then be illustrated with a tree diagram, starting at the top and breaking down the elements step by step.

To give you an idea about how to do this (and help your learners and yourself), here's an example sentence parsed and then set out as a tree diagram:

The example sentence is:

He bought some fresh apples in the market

and the resulting tree diagram looks like this:


If you would like to try something like that with a similar sentence, try parsing:

The dog stole the food from the table

and then click eye when you have sketched that out on a piece of paper.


Learn more

The first example of parsing came from the essential guide to the sentence and if you would like to read that and get some more practice in a key analysis tool, click here.
These links will take you to dedicated guides:
verb types and clause structures
and they are both in the in-service section of the site so are a bit more technical.


Take a test

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


Section C: cohesion


John liked the car so he bought it

Cohesion is the way ideas are linked together to make meaning.

For example, look at the sentence and focus on the words in red and black.

John came into the house, walked through it and went into the garden where he picked two red roses and a yellow one.

The words in red are examples of cohesion in English and they link to the words in black.

Notice, too, that we don't repeat John in walked through it because we know who did that.

We can refer backwards in a text like this:
This is called anaphoric referencing.

It's also possible to refer forwards in a text but that is rarer and gives a different, literary, feel sometimes.


This is called cataphoric referencing.

In all the cases above, we are concerned with what makes sentences hang together.  This is called cohesion.

types of cohesion

Types of cohesion

As we saw in the section on pronouns, this is often achieved using pronouns such as he in the sentence about John above.  The pronoun refers either back or forward to the noun in sentences such as
    John didn't tell me where he is
    When she came in, I saw that Mary was very upset
Sometimes referencing is to a whole statement in examples such as
    As I mentioned earlier
Here are some more examples:
    A: Where's the car
    B: I lent it to Mary
    The bus broke down and that's why I'm late
    When I finally got round to reading them, I thought the books were really good
This means leaving out (ellipting is the technical verb) a word because the reader / listener knows what the reference is.  In the example above, we don't repeat John for the second verb.  In spoken English, we very often get exchanges like
    A: What's for lunch?
    B: Cauliflower cheese
(leaving out the clause, is for lunch)
Here are two more examples:
    A: Who arrived?
    B: John
(ellipting the verb, arrived)
    I don't like the red shoes but I love the blue (ellipting the noun, shoes)
In this, we don't leave out the word but change it for something more general.  For example, above, the use of one to mean a rose or in something like
    What wines do you want?
    I'll take the French
We use conjunction to join ideas (you discovered a lot about conjunction in this course) in both spoken and written English.  For example, and went into the garden, above, or in exchanges like
    Why did you open the cage?
I wanted to change the water
Lexical cohesion:
This refers to the fact that in any text (written or spoken) there are likely to appear chains of related words.  For example, a text about hospitals it is likely to contain nouns such as medicine, patient, nurse, ward, treatment and doctor with verbs such as treat, admit, operate, sterilise and care for.
Grammatical cohesion:
This refers to the fact that we employ similar grammar in texts to keep the theme, especially the tense, consistent.  For example, the use of simple past tenses in:
    He went into the bar, walked up to the counter and ordered three beers


Learn more:

in the in-service section.


Take a test

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


Section D: conditional (complex) sentences


If you give me a lift, I'll buy you a drink

Conditional sentences are just one case of clause subordination but, because they cause a good deal of difficulty for learners (and some teachers) we are using them here as an elaborated example of clause patterns.

A conditional sentence is defined on this site as:

A sentence which consists of two clauses at least, one of which expresses the condition (the protasis) and contains the conditional conjunction or other marker of condition and one which expresses the consequence of the fulfilment of the condition (the apodosis).
(From the glossary of grammar, lexis and phonology)

For example, in the sentence:
    If you come to the party, you'll be able to meet his sister
there are two clauses:

  1. The protasis:
        If you come to the party
    which expresses the condition
  2. The apodosis
        you'll be able to meet his sister
    which expresses the consequence of coming to the party.

Another way of putting this is to state that conditionals are a special form of sentences with a main and a subordinate clause.  If you would like to review the differences between subordination and coordination, see the section on conjunctions in Unit 4 (new tab).
Here are a few examples:

  1. If you see John, will you ask him?
  2. I would not bother with it if I were you.
  3. You wouldn't have had an accident if you had looked where you were going.
  4. If it rains all night, the road'll be flooded by dawn.
  5. He would come if you bothered to invite him.
  6. If it hadn't been for the rain, we would have won the match.

In this list, there are two examples of each of the three basic types of conditional sentences.
Think about what the sentences mean and what times they refer to and then divide up the list into three categories.
Then click eye for some comments.


First conditional

If you push hard, it will move

The form of the first conditional is:

Conditional clause Main clause or Main clause Conditional clause
If present tense will infinitive will infinitive if present tense
If you come you will see You will see if you come

The form is easy enough and most learners get it quickly.

The concept is slightly more difficult.  First conditional forms are concerned with future events and imply that if one condition is met (coming, pushing hard) the other event (seeing, moving) will follow.
Here are some more examples of the form:
    If it rains, I'll take an umbrella
    If it doesn't snow again, I'll take the dogs out
    What will you do if it rains?


Second conditional

If I flew to the moon,
I would look back and wave

The form of the second conditional is:

Conditional clause Main clause or Main clause Conditional clause
If past tense would infinitive would infinitive if past tense
If you came you would see You would see if you came

Again, this is not too complicated but there are two possible concepts here.

  1. Unlikely condition
    the speaker does not believe there is a high likelihood of an event occurring but if it does, the follow-on event is certain:
        If I won the lottery I'd be happy (but I don't think I'll win it)
        If they gave me an extra holiday, I would be really happy (but I don't think they will)

        What would you do if you won the lottery? (but I don't think you'll win)
  2. Unreal condition
    the speaker does not believe that an event is at all possible logically but is happy to speculate about the outcomes of an unreal event.
        If I were you, I'd buy it
        If I had a penny for every time I've said that, I'd be a wealthy woman

Both unlikely and unreal conditionals are called hypothetical conditionals in many analyses.


Third conditional

If you had been more careful,
it wouldn't have broken

The form of the third conditional is:

Conditional clause Main clause or Main clause Conditional clause
If past perfect tense would have past participle would have past participle if past perfect tense
If you had come you would have seen You would have seen if you had come

Now that is complicated and learners need lots of practice just to get the form right.
This form refers only to the past and, therefore, applies to clearly unreal, impossible events.  It is used for regrets, criticisms and speculation and a number of other meanings.  Here are some examples:

    If I'd had the money, I would have bought it
and I regret the fact that I didn't have the money.
    If you had driven more carefully, you wouldn't have dented the car
and I am suggesting that you should have driven more carefully.
    If Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo, what would Europe have been like?
and I'm asking you to speculate about an impossible past situation.


Learn more

If you want to discover more about the conditional forms in English, go to either:
the essential guide to conditionals
from which most of the above is taken but which has a little more about how modal auxiliary verbs are used in conditional sentences, in particular.
condition and concession
which is more technical and assumes you know all the above.


Take a test

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