Phrases - English Grammar Notes

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  • A phrase is a group of words without a subject or a predicate or both and does not express a complete thought. Therefore, a phrase can never stand on its own as a complete sentence. Using different kinds of phrases enables a writer or a speaker to create informative and descriptive sentences that vary in structure. phrases combine words into a larger unit that can function as a sentence element.
  • The most common kinds of phrases in English are: Noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, gerund phrases and participial phrases.

Noun Phrases

  • A noun phrase consists of a noun and all its modifiers. It can function as a subjectobject, or complement in the sentence. The modifiers may include articles, prepositions and adjectives.


  1. Noun phrases as subjects
    • The lazy old man sleeps all day long.
    • Some school boards reward teachers who produce good results.
  2. Noun phrases as objects
    • Teachers rejected the proposed performance contracts.
    • Critics opposed the controversial marriage bill.
  3. Noun phrases as complements
    • Teaching is a valuable profession.
    • Sheila is a hardworking no-nonsense lady.

Exercise 1

Identify the noun phrases in each of the following sentences and indicate whether it functions as a subject, object or complement.

  1. I saw a TV show yesterday.
  2. Playful animals really fascinate me.
  3. Yesterday, I had a thrilling adventure.
  4. Swimming is an exciting activity.
  5. Twenty university students were expelled last month.
  6. She is a certified public health officer.
  7. Many of the soldiers were killed in the battle.
  8. The old woman carried a heavy load of firewood on her back.
  9. Peter seems a very complicated man to understand
  10. A devastating earthquake hit China yesterday.

Verb Phrases

  • A verb phrase consists of a main verb and its helping verbs. It can function as the predicate of a sentence. The predicate tells what the subject does or is. (It tells something about the subject).

    • John was born in Malindi.
    • This problem may have contributed to the collapse of the economy
    • Without highly – trained workers, many Kenyan companies would be forced to close down.
  • Sometimes the parts of a verb phrase are separated from each other by words that are not verbs.

    • He is finally buying a new house.
    • Salesmen must occasionally travel long distances.
  • Some words are joined with other words to make contractions.

    • He hasn’t turned up for the meeting (has + not)
    • We couldn’t tell what had killed the cow. (could + not)
    • I’ve ordered them to leave the house. (I + have).

NB: The word not and the contraction n’t are adverbs. They are never part of a verb or verb phrase.

Exercise 2

Write the verb phrase in each of the following sentences.

  1. We should have taken pictures of the wild animals.
  2. You must have seen the posters of the event.
  3. They should have been told to come with flowers to plant in the school compound.
  4. Mr. Muchira would have told some interesting stories.
  5. Scientists must’ve visited the Menengai Crater.
  6. He must have seen some wonderful places.
  7. Many advocates do fear the new Chief Justice.
  8. The scouts have often made camp here.
  9. The bull fighters would sometimes stampede noisily.
  10. I could have read the book if he had allowed me.

Prepositional Phrases

  • A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition, the object of the preposition, and all the words between them. It often functions as an adjective or adverb, but it can function as a noun as well.

    1. We carried the fruits in our school bags. (adverb telling where)
    2. The plane flew through the cloud. (adverb telling where)
    3. Almost half of Africa’s population suffers from water – related diseases. (adverb modifying suffers).
    4. The water supply in the United States is expected to decline dramatically. (adjective modifying water supply).
    5. The best time to practise water conservation is before a water shortage. (noun functioning as a complement).
  • In sentence (i) above, the preposition is in, the object of the preposition is bags, and the modifiers or adjectives are our and school.
  • Sometimes two or more nouns or pronouns are used as objects in a prepositional phrase.

    • He needs a wife with diligence and a good character.
      - Diligence and character are objects of the preposition with.
  • When prepositional phrases function as adjectives and adverbs in sentences, they are called adjectival and adverbial phrases respectively.
    1. An adjectival prepositional phrase modifies nouns or pronouns.

      - The woman wears shoes with sharp heels. (an adjectival phrase modifying the noun shoes)
      - The man with a funny – looking dog crossed the road. (an adjectival phrase modifying the noun man)
    2. An adverbial prepositional phrase modifies verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

      - Soldiers train for many months. (an adverbial phrase modifying the verb train)
      - People are lazy in the afternoons. (an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective lazy.)
      - She arrived late in the night. (an adverbial phrase modifying the adverb late).
  • Sometimes one prepositional phrase immediately follows another.

    • The man led him through the door on the left.
      - Note that the prepositional phrase through the door is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb led and tells where? The second prepositional phrase on the left is an adjectival phrase modifying the noun door and tells which one?
  • A prepositional phrase can be at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence.

    • At dusk, we began to walk home.
    • The map of the area was very helpful.
    • The path went by a forest and a large lake.

Exercise 3

Underline the prepositional phrases in the following sentences and indicate what type each of them is.

  1. The oldest building is found in Mombasa.
  2. Five companies around the country have bought new fire engines.
  3. The barking of the dog scared the strangers.
  4. Bulls are bred for hard work.
  5. Most bridges are built over water.
  6. Travellers were spared many miles of travel.
  7. I went by bus to the market.
  8. At the market, I saw beautiful and unusual people.
  9. I also saw a display of colourful clothes.
  10. She took him through the lesson with professional expertise.

Gerund Phrases

  • A gerund is a verb form used as a noun. It is formed by adding -ing to the present these of a verb. Gerunds can be used as subjects, direct objects, objects of prepositions, and complements.

    • Subject: Fishing is a popular activity in Nyanza Province. (Fishing is a gerund, the subject of the verb is)
    • Direct object: The sport involves riding. (riding is a gerund, the direct object of the verb involves)
    • Object of preposition: The sport is similar to fencing. (fencing is a gerund, the object of the preposition to).
  • A gerund phrase includes a gerund, its modifiers, objects or complements. It always functions as a noun.

    • Becoming a Tusker Project fame finalist was Msechu’s lifetime dream. (gerund phrase is the subject of the sentence.)
    • Msechu dreamt all his life about winning the top award. (the gerund phrase is an object of the preposition about).
    • One of Msechu’s biggest disappointments was losing to Alpha. (the gerund phrase is a complement).
    • The game involves jumping over hurdles. (object of the verb involves).

Exercise 4

Underline the gerund or gerund phrases in the following sentences and label each one subject, direct, object, object of preposition, or complement.

  1. In early days, golfing was a game for the rich.
  2. The rich were mostly interested in protecting their status.
  3. Playing golf with a commoner would mean lowered status.
  4. Much of the rich people’s time was spent playing the game.
  5. Training thoroughly improved a golfer’s accuracy in the game.
  6. There he learned about playing the game.
  7. Later, he started contesting with other junior golfers.
  8. At fifteen or sixteen, he began playing with the professionals.
  9. Participating in international tournaments was the golfer’s dream.
  10. But the greatest dream was winning an in international title.

Participle Phrases

  • A participle is a verb form that always acts as an adjective. There are two types of participles:
    1. The past participle – it is usually formed by adding d, or -ed to the present tense.

      - Fooled, the shopkeeper bought fake products. (Fooled is a past participle modifying the noun shopkeeper)
      - Shaken, he dashed to the police station. (Shaken is a past participle modifying the pronoun he)

      The participles of irregular verbs, however, do not follow the above rule: run-run, throw-thrown.
    2. The present participle – it is usually formed by adding -ing to the present tense of any verb.

      • Smiling, the conman stepped out of the shop. (Smiling is a present participial phrase modifying the noun b).
  • Using participles is a simple way of adding information to sentences and to vary sentences beginnings.
  • A participial phrase consists of a present or past participle and its modifiers, objectsor complements. It always functions as an adjective.

    • Rounding the corner, the conman met two policemen. (Rounding the corner is a present participial phrase modifying the noun conman).
    • Surprised by the appearance of the conman, the policemen started blowing their whistles. (Surprised by the appearance of the conman is a past participial phrase modifying the noun policemen).
  • A participle or participial phrase is not always at the beginning of a sentence. Sometimes it may appear in the middle but it should be near the noun or pronoun it modifies.

    • The skilled policemen arrested the conman.
    • The conman, losing control, fought the policemen fiercely.

Points to Note

  • Both the gerund and the present participle are created by a adding -ing to the present tense of a verb. BUT how can you tell whether a word is a gerund or a participle? It all depends on how the word is used in a sentence.
    1. A participle is used as a modifier in a sentence.

      - Gaining courage, the conman attempted to escape. (Gaining courage is a participial phrase modifying conman).
    2. A gerund is used as a noun in a sentence.

      - Gaining courage made the conman look aggressive. (Gaining courage is a gerund phrase, the subject of the verb made).

Exercise 5

Underline the participial phrases in the following sentences, indicating whether it is a past or present participial phrase and the noun or pronoun it modifies.

  1. Defying all odds, Kisoi Munyao attempted to climb to the highest peak of Mt. Kenya for seven times.
  2. Failing each time, he refused to give up.
  3. Seeing his passion to scale the peak, the government offered him financial assistance.
  4. The climber ascended slowly, making steady progress.
  5. Pleased with his progress, he camped at eleven thousand feet.
  6. The climber, determined to hoist the Kenyan flag, progressed on the following morning.
  7. Slipping on the snow, Munyao fell on a dry tree trunk.
  8. A rope worn from too many climbs then broke.
  9. One of his hot water bottles, slipping to the bottom of the cliff, broke into pieces.
  10. Munyao, overcome with joy, finally hoisted the flag at Point Batian.

Infinitive Phrases

  • An infinitive is a verb form that usually appears with the word to before it. To is called the sign of the infinitive.

    to lift                 to eat           to launch              to register
  • To is a preposition if it is followed by a noun or noun phrase, but it is a sign of the infinitive if it is followed by a verb or verb phrase.

    • Joseph longed for a flight to the moon. (prepositional phrase)
    • Not until 1985 was he able to succeed. (infinitive)
  • An infinitive phrase consists of an infinitive and its modifiers, objects or complements. It can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

    • To write clearly and concisely can be difficult sometimes. (Infinitive phrase functioning as noun and the subject of the sentence).
    • Proofreading your writing is a good way to ensure the absence of typing mistakes. (Infinitive phrase functioning as an adjective modifying the noun way).
    • To greatly increase the amount of stress in your life, leave your writing task until the night before it is due. (Infinitive phrase functioning as an adverb modifying the verb leave).

Exercise 6

Underline the infinitive phrases in each of the following sentences and state whether it is functioning as a noun, adjective or adverb.

  1. To climb Mt. Kenya was the dream of Kisoi Munyao.
  2. The freedom hero decided to climb the mountain on the eve of the country’s independence.
  3. He was one of the first Kenyans to try this risky climb.
  4. His determination helped him to make rapid progress to reach Point Batian.
  5. Munyao was able to reach the peak with very limited climbing gear.
  6. To reach Point Batian was Munyao’s ultimate goal.
  7. At first few other climbers bothered to listen to Munyao.
  8. He was even forced to finance much of his expedition himself.
  9. Munyao worked hard to achieve his dream of hoisting the Kenyan flag.
  10. His success made it easier for other climbers to scale the tallest mountain in Kenya.


Exercise 1

  1. a TV show – object
  2. Playful animals – subject
  3. a thrilling adventure – object
  4. an exciting activity – complement
  5. Twenty university students – subject
  6. a certified public health officer – complement
  7. Many of the soldiers – subject
  8. The old woman – subject, a heavy load – object
  9. a very complicated man – complement
  10. A devastating earthquake – subject

Exercise 2

  1. should have taken                 6. must have seen
  2. must have seen                    7. do fear
  3. should have been told           8. have made
  4. would have told                    9. would stampede
  5. must’ve visited                   10. could have read

Exercise 3

  1. in Mombasa – adverbial modifying the verb found.
  2. around the country – adjectival modifying the noun companies.
  3. of the dog – adjectival modifying the noun barking.
  4. for hard work – adverbial modifying the verb bred.
  5. over water – adverbial modifying the verb built.
  6. of travel – adjectival modifying the noun miles.
  7. by bus – adverbial modifying the verb went. to the market – adverbial modifying the verb went.
  8. At the market – adjectival modifying the noun.
  9. of colours clothes – adjectival modifying the noun display.
  10. with professional expertise – adverbial modifying the phrasal verb took through.

Exercise 4

  1. golfing – complement
  2. protecting their status – object of the preposition in.
  3. Playing golf with a commoner – subject
  4. playing the game – direct object
  5. Training thoroughly – subject
  6. playing the game- object of preposition
  7. contesting with junior golfers – subject
  8. playing with the professionals – direct object
  9. Participating in international tournaments – subject
  10. Winning an international title – complement


Exercise 5

  1. Defying all odds – present participial phrase – Kisoi Munyao
  2. Failing each time – present participial phrase – he
  3. Seeing his passion to scale the peak – present participial phrase - government
  4. making steady progress - present participial phrase – climber
  5. Pleased with his progress – past participial phrase – he
  6. determined to hast the Kenya flag - past participial phrase – climber
  7. Slipping on the snow - present participial phrase – Munyao
  8. worn from too many climbs - past participial phrase – rope
  9. slipping to the bottom of the cliff- present participial - bottles
  10. overcome with joy - past participial phrase – Munyao

Exercise 6

  1. To climb Mt. Kenya –noun
  2. to climb the mountain – noun
  3. to try this risky climb – adjective modifying the noun Kenyans
  4. to make rapid progress – adverb modifying the verb helped
  5. with very limited climbing gear – adverb modifying the verb reach
  6. To reach Point Batian – noun
  7. to listen to Munyao – noun
  8. to finance much of his expedition – adverb modifying the verb forced
  9. to achieve his dream of hasting the flag – adverb modifying the verb worked
  10. to scale the tallest mountain in Kenya – adverb modifying the verb made.
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