Phrases and Clauses

This page was first published on the 9th of November, 2016 and last updated on the 8th of May, 2017 by Patrick Carpen.

words photoA sentence is a group of words which express a complete thought. The three units which combine to make up a sentence are:

  1. Words
  2. Phrases
  3. Clauses

The Clause

A clause is a group of words in a sentence which contains both a subject and a verb.

A clause can be either:

a) Principal – The principal clause makes sense on its own.

b) Subordinate – The subordinate clause depends on the principal clause to complete its meaning.

In a sentence with two or more clauses, a principal clause carries the main idea of the sentence. The subordinate clause adds to the meaning of the sentence. A connecting word ties the subordinate clause to the principal clause.


I shall answer if they write.

In the above example, the conjunction “if” ties the subordinate clause if they write to the main clause I shall answer.

Conjunctive adverbs and conjunctive pronouns are the two other connectives which tie subordinate clauses to principal clauses.

I shall answer when he writes.

In the above sentence, the conjunctive adverb “when” ties the subordinate clause when he writes to the principal clause I shall answer.

I shall answer whoever writes.

In the above sentence, the conjunctive pronoun “whoever” ties the subordinate clause whoever writes to the principal clause I shall answer.

In the paragraph below, the clauses are underlined. The subject of the clause is set in bold and the verb of the clause is set in italics.

Travel and National Unity

  1. Those of us who live in one region should know about their brothers elsewhere in Guyana.
  2. Travel is one solution.
  3. When we are transplanted in new surroundings, we observe our fellow Guyanese.
  4. Not all have the means for extensive travel.
  5. But a holiday in a neighboring region is an investment that can produce rich dividends in tightening the bonds which bind us into one nation.
  6. Travel strengthens national unity.


Adjective Clauses

Some subordinate clauses do the work of the adjective: they modify a noun or pronoun in another clause of the sentence. Subordinate clauses which do the work of the adjective are called adjective clauses.


Adverbial Clauses

Some clauses do the work of the adverb. That is, they modify some adjective, verb or other adverb in another clause of the sentence. When a clause does the work of an adverb, it is called an adverbial clause.


Noun Clauses

Some clauses do the work of the noun. That is, they name something. When a clause does the work of a noun, it is called a noun clause. The two most common uses of the noun clause are as subject of a verb and object of a verb. When a noun clause becomes the subject of a sentence, this whole noun clause is the bare subject.


  1. What Guyana needs is greater development of her natural resources.
  2. Do you know that CJIA is a great commercial airport?
  3. Few people realize that thousands of Europeans still live in Guyana.
  4. Officials report that our tourist business is increasing.
  5. What Guyana achieves depends on her people.
  6. Brazilian tourists find that Guyanese are a friendly people.
  7. Foreign investors soon discover that Guyana is a land of opportunity.
  8. That Guyana’s financial policy is sound concerns everyone.
  9. Remember that everyone should cast his vote.
  10. How we vote reflects our way of thinking.

The Phrase

A phrase is a group of words tied together. Unlike a clause, a phrase does not contain both a subject and a verb. So, by definition, “a phrase is a group of words in a sentence which does not contain both a subject and a verb”.

The Prepositional Phrase

Phrases are called “prepositional phrases” because each phrase begins with a preposition. A prepositional phrase contains a preposition and the object of the preposition, as well as any words that modify the object of the proposition. In the prepositional phrase “on the other side”, the preposition is “on”, the object of the preposition “on” is the “side” and the words “the other” modifies the object of the preposition. So preposition + object of preposition + modifying words = prepositional phrase. Note that modifying words are not always present in prepositional phrases.

Some examples of prepositional phrases: in the kitchen, after the party, in the bathroom, on the other side, under the sea, above the skies, below the clouds.

The key to identifying a prepositional phrase is to look for a preposition and then ask yourself “what?” For example, in the sentence “Jane was cooking in the kitchen”, the preposition of that sentence is “in”. So you ask “in what?” The answer “in the kitchen”.

In the paragraph below, identify the prepositions in each sentence. Then ask yourself “what”? Using this method, you will find the prepositional phrases and underline them.

The Hitch-Hiker (Taken from Working with English by Rennie and Anderson)

  1. Ted Spence trudged in the hot sun.
  2. He was walking from Hamilton to Niagara Falls on the Queen Elizabeth highway.
  3. During the long afternoon many cars drove past him.
  4. Eventually he threw his coat over his shoulder.
  5. Occasionally he signaled to passing cars with his thumb.
  6. Presently he sat down in the shade of a tree.
  7. Ted lost interest in the passing traffic on the road.
  8. A passing dog paused before him wagging its tail in a friendly manner.
  9. Ted stroked its head with his hand.
  10. After a half-hour rest he continued his walk with the dog trotting behind him.

Multiple-words prepositions

Some prepositions consist of more than one word. The following are examples: according to, aside from, because of, by way of, in spite of, out of, out from, up to. These two-word or three-word prepositions, like single-word prepositions, take an object. The preposition, its object and modifiers of the object form a prepositional phrase. In the sentences below, look for all one, two and three-word prepositions. Then ask yourself “what”. Use this method to identify and underline all the prepositional phrases.

Point out all the prepositional phrases in the following sentences.

Our Brazilian Visitors

  1. According to records, more Brazilian tourists come to Guyana each year.
  2. Many of them come by way of the Takutu River Bridge at the southern border.
  3. Our bordering town measures up to their expectations.
  4. Because of low prices, eager Brazilian shoppers fill their trunks with goods to take back.
  5. They come out of the vacation land with happy memories.
  6. Because of the customs inspection, they have to be careful not to take back too much goods.
  7. Aside from the financial gain, the goodwill of two neighboring peoples promotes friendship.
  8. The license plates of the cars show that they come from different cities.
  9. According to casual observation, most of the visitors come from the city of Boa Vista.
  10. The rest come from Manaus and other farther cities.

Note: In the expressions “to be careful” and “to take back”, the word “to” not used as a preposition but as a part of a verb.

Write sentences containing the following prepositional phrases: with ice cream, across the sky, at the forest edge, on roller skates, at midnight, because of the danger, in front of them, to the end, out from England, beyond the next hill.

Phrases as Parts of Speech

A phrase is also called a “prepositional phrase” because every phrase begins with a preposition and ends with the object of the preposition. The words “phrase” and “prepositional phrase” are interchangeable: they can work in place of each other.

Each phrase does the work as single part of speech:

  1. The noun phrase does the work of the noun: it names something.
  2. The adjective phrase does the work of the adjective: it modifies a noun or a pronoun.
  3. The adverb phrase does the work of the adverb: it modifies a verb, adjective or other adverb.

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