Phrases and the Grammatical Hierarchy
• English grammar is made up of elements (or “parts”) which are ordered top-to-bottom—as a “hierarchy” in other words. Sentences are at the top of the hierarchy, next come clauses, then phrases, then words, and finally, at the bottom, morphemes. Phrases are the constituents (or “parts”) of clauses, the element just above them in the grammatical hierarchy. But in addition to being constituents, they have their own constituents—words, the element just below them in the grammatical hierarchy. To appreciate the role of phrases in English grammar, it is necessary to understand both how they are structured with words and how they function as clause elements.
The Structure of Phrases
• There are five basic types of phrase: noun phrases • verb phrases • adjective phrases • adverb phrases • prepositional phrases
Examples: noun phrase: Jill’s old sweater • verb phrase: was lying • prepositional phrase: on her bed • adj phrase: very angry • adv phrase: quite often
- all the phrases given as examples above contain more than one word; however, “unitary-constituent” phrases of all kinds are possible—and common
- with the exception of verb phrases, phrases can contain embedded phrases; they are therefore capable of being extremely long and complex
• The structure of noun phrases, adjective phrases, and adverb phrases is centered on a “head” (or “headword”). A noun is the head of a noun phrase, an adjective of an adjective phrase, etc. The head of a phrase is an “obligatory element.” An adjective phrase, for example, must have one adjective as its head.
- Verb phrases and prepositional phrases are structured differently. Verb phrases are centered on a “main verb” which may or may not be accompanied by one or more auxiliary verbs. Verb phrases are also unique in that they can contain only verbs (i.e. words that belong to the verb word class); other types of phrase, by contrast, can contain words from any of the word classes. Prepositional phrases all begin with a preposition which is followed by an embedded noun phrase;
The Function of Phrases
• Each type of phrase is associated with a particular sort of clause element. (It can be thought of in this way: when we say a word, or group of words is a phrase of a particular kind, we mean we can use it in a particular position in a clause.)
- the subject and object element of a clause must be either a noun phrase or a subordinate clause
- the verb element of a clause must always be a verb phrase
- the complement element of a clause must always be a noun phrase or an adjective phrase
- the adverbial element of a clause can be a prepositional phrase, an adverb phrase, or a noun phrase