Phrases and Clauses

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between phrases and clauses
  • Differentiate between dependent and independent clauses

Phrases and Clauses

Phrases and clauses are groups of words that act as a unit and perform a single function within a sentence. A phrase is a group of words that may have a partial subject or verb but not both, or it may have neither a subject nor a verb. Phrases never have a subject doing the action of a verb. A clause, however, is by definition a group of words that has a subject and a verb. A sentence can have any number of clauses and phrases combined together. See the examples below:

Phrases Clauses
Needing help Sarah smiled
With a green shirt She laughs at shy people
Best friend Because he gave her a puppy
On the horizon When the saints go marching in
After the devastation I waited for him
Because of her glittering smile He wants to become an engineer

Notice how each of the clauses has a subject and a verb, but the phrases do not. Some of the clauses contain phrases, like “She laughs at shy people.” “She laughs” is a clause, and “at shy people” is a phrase that complements the clause and completes the sentence.

Phrases can be any combination of words that do not combine a subject and a verb. There are many types of phrases, including noun phrases (the nice neighbor, my best friend, troops of soliders), verbal phrases (waiting for the rain to stop, have been sleeping), and prepositional phrases, which follow a preposition (after the storm, to the end of time, in the road).

You might be tempted to just assume that phrases are shorter than clauses. This is not always true. Many phrases are only two words long, but many are much longer. Look at the following sentence:

  • In 1833, Faraday’s experimentation with electrolysis indicated a natural unit of electrical charge, thus pointing to a discrete rather than continuous charge.

Each of the bolded segments of this sentence is a phrase. Be sure as you analyze each sentence that you are looking for a subject and a verb to decipher what is a clause and what is just a phrase.

WAtch It

Click through this interactive to learn more about the differences between clauses and phrases.

Dependent and Independent Clauses

There are two types of clauses: dependent and independent. A dependent clause has both a subject and a verb, but is not a complete sentence and does not express a complete thought. It is dependent on something else: it cannot stand on its own. Some examples of dependent clauses include:

  • When we get enough snow
  • Because I was upset
  • Which book I want to read next
  • Until the sun sets

You can see that each of these clauses has a noun and a verb, but they also have an additional word, like a subordinating conjunction (because) or a relative pronoun (which), which makes the clause feel incomplete. These clauses must be attached to an independent clause to be a part of a complete sentence.

An independent clause, on the other hand, is free to stand by itself. It contains a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought which does not require anything else. Here are some examples of independent clauses:

  • I enjoy sitting by the fireplace.
  • The sun set.
  • This is the book I want to read next.

So how can you tell if a clause is dependent or independent? Sometimes they can be almost exactly the same. For example, “I was a little girl in 1995” is an independent clause, but “Because I was a little girl in 1995” is a dependent clause.

Look for the common words that are known to make dependent clauses, like subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns. Some common ones are: afteralthoughasas ifbecausebeforeeven ifeven thoughif, in order to, sincethoughunlessuntilwhateverwhenwheneverwhether, and while. Also pay attention to if the clause makes sense standing by itself. Do you understand the whole idea of what the sentence is saying? Does the thought seem incomplete? If it feels incomplete, it is probably a dependent clause.

Watch it

Watch this video to learn more about dependent and independent clauses.

You can view the transcript for “Dependent and independent clauses” here (opens in new window).

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