Phrase Level


Phrase as a language unit

Description of phrases as syntactic units

Phrase as a language unit

A word-group (also called a phrase or a word cluster) is a linear language unit which may function in speech either as an integral part of a sentence, or, if given intonation pattern and communicative purpose, as a sentence itself.

Traditionally a phrase is considered to be a combination of two notional words (brilliant mind) or a combination of a functional and a notional word (after dinner).

The main function of a phrase is polynomination (denoting a complex referent having several components).

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Description of phrases as syntactic units

Syntactic types of word connections:




Coordinate phrases consist of two or more syntactically equal units joined in a cluster which functions as a single unit. e. g.: girls and boys, pins and needles, sooner or later, now and then, etc. 

Subordinate phrases are binary structures in which one of the members is syntactically the leading element of the phrase (head word). No matter how complicated this structure may be, it can always be divided into two immediate constituents, one functioning as head and the other as modifier (adjunct).

Adjuncts serve to describe, to qualify, to select, to complete, to extend or in some other way to affect the meaning of the head, e. g.: fresh air, stone wall, writing a letter, perfectly right, awfully tired, etc.

The two basic types of subordination connection are bilateral (reciprocal, two-way) domination and monolateral (one-way) domination. Bilateral domination is a predicative connection of words, while monolateral domination is a  completive connection of words.

e.g. Bilateral (predicative) domination: he went (as in a sentence ‘He went to bring you some water’); him crying (as in a sentence ‘I’ve never seen him crying’) — it means, that one element is a doer of an action, the second element shows an action.

The predicative connection of words builds up the basis of the sentence.

In completive, one-way connection of words, the outer syntactic f of the whole combination is determined by the kernel element (head-word). e.g. gave a book (objective); a nice coat (qualifying/attributive), very cheerful (adverbial).

Qualifying/attributive relations mean that the adjunct modifies the head word (describes its properties). Most common modificators are adjectives.

Objective relations show an action and the object of the action, e.g. to open the door.

Adverbial relations show that some action has a property, or describe some situation in general, e.g. very clever

Depending on the type of the head word, we can distinguish several phrase classes in English, which reflect the four major lexical word classes. Hence, there are noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases and adverb phrases, each of which is centred on a head word of the relevant class, and each of which has certain potential additions to that head word to make a longer phrase. Also there are prepositional phrases, in which relations between the head word and the adjunct word are shown with prepositions.

For example, the noun phrase is based around a head noun. A single noun is a shortest possible version of a noun phrase, e.g. Power made him crazy. However, most noun phrases have at least one premodifier, usually a determiner, e.g. His power made him crazy.

A noun can also have dependent enumerator, adjective and another noun as premodifiers, and a prepositional phrase and a subordintate clause as postmodifiers.

e.g. The dictionary is in the book cupboard.

The dictionary in the book cupboard is huge.

The dictionary which I bought yesterday is huge.

Type of noun phrases (NP):

  • Noun (Power made him crazy).
  • (Predeterminer) + Determiner +noun (My sisters. All my sisters.)
  • Noun + modifying or objective prepositional phrase (owner of the house)
  • Modifier + noun.
    • Adjective + noun (e.g. beautiful girl)
    • Noun + noun. Such phrases are also called attributive groups. The lexical meaning of the first noun — to represent a category. For example, the following relations may be implied:

1)  B is a part of A.
2) B contains or is made from A.
3) B is used for A.
4) B is located at/near A.
5) B is a location or an occasion for A.
6) B resembles A.
7) B deals with A.
8).Other relations

Can you guess which meaning is implied in the following noun +noun phrases?

a) turnip cake; b) turnip beetle; c) turnip face; d) turnip scientists; e) tennis ball; f) water polo; g) web site; h) web party

Types of verb phrases (VP):

  • Verb
  • Auxiliary verb +Verb (there may be several auxiliary verbs, e.g. might have been being followed)
  • Auxiliary verb + compliment/predicative) (e.g. is clever)
  • Verb + object (e.g. gave her the book)
  • Verb + adverbial (e.g. goes quickly)

Types of adjective phrases (AjP):

  • Adjective + adverb (very beautiful)
  • Adjective + objective prepositional phrase (first to leave)

Types of adverbial phrases (AvP):

  • Intensifier+ adverb (exceptionally beautifully)


Formal ways of expressing syntactic connections between words:

1)    Agreement (concord): the use of one form of the word necessitates the specific form of the other. In Modern English it is limited by a) the agreement of subject and verb in number and person; b) the agreement of pronouns with antecedent nouns in number, gender, and sometimes case)

e.g. We know it. He knows it. This hat / these hats

2)    Government: the use of a certain case form of an adjunct word required by its head-word. In Modern English is limited by the use of the objective case of pronouns (e.g. I like him.)

3)    Adjoinment: the words are joined to one another without any special forms, by only their position, their dependent grammatical function and meaning (most popular in Modern English).

4)    Enclosure: another element is inserted between two elements of a word-form:

e.g. to quickly do it

 Practical tasks and assignments: Phrase Level

Split the sentence in two-element phrases. Identify the type of a phrase (subordinate or coordinate). Define a head word and an adjunct word in a subordinate phrase. Define the type of a subordinate phrase on the basis of its head word (noun phrase, verb phrase, adjective phrase or adverb phrase) and the types of syntactical relations between elements of a subordinate phrase (attributive, objective or adverbial).


The use of desktop computer equipment and software to create high-quality documents such as business cards and brochures is called Desktop Publishing.





The use of computer – subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations (noun+ prepositional phrase)

The use of software — subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations  (noun+ prepositional phrase)

Equipment and software – coordinate phrase

Computer equipment — – subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations

Computer software — – subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations

High-quality documents — subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations

Business cards — subordinate, noun phrase, attributive relations

Cards and brochures — coordinate phrase

use is called – bilateral predicative (two-way) phrase

Is Called — verb phrase ( auxiliary + verb)

is called publishing – subordinate verb phrase, objective relations

Desktop publishing — subordinate noun phrase




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