LEOLEO: Literacy Education Online

Phrase Formulas

A phrase is a group of words that lacks a subject, a predicate, or both and does not express a complete thought. Therefore, a phrase can never stand on its own as a complete sentence. Understanding how different kinds of phrases function and are constructed enables writers to create informative and descriptive sentences that vary in structure.

These are the most common kinds of phrases:

noun | appositive | verb | absolute

prepositional | gerund | participial | infinitive

NOUN PHRASE = noun + modifiers

A noun phrase consists of a noun and all of its modifiers. It can function in a sentence as a subject, object, or complement.


Some American school boards have begun to consider compensating teachers based on how well they teach rather than how long.

noun phrase = subject
Critics reject these controversial pay-for-performance plans, maintaining that they are unfair to teachers who have unusually difficult students. noun phrase = direct object
According to both sides of the debate, teaching is a valuable profession, and compensation for this important job must be improved. noun phrase = complement

APPOSITIVE PHRASE = noun phrase or other phrase functioning as a noun

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase or any other type of phrase functioning as a noun that renames a noun/pronoun preceding it.


Determined looks on their faces, parents waited in line outside the mall at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday with one goal in mind, to get the newest Harry Potter book for their children.

appositive phrase = infinitive phrase renaming goal
In the first book of the series, Harry, an orphan who is forced to live with relatives who detest him, receives an invitation to study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. appositive phrase = noun phrase renaming Harry

VERB PHRASE = main verb + helping verbs

A verb phrase includes a main verb and its helping verbs. It can function only as the predicate of a sentence.


High-tech businesses with more positions than employees are recruiting talented staffers from overseas.

Without highly-trained foreign workers, many American companies would be forced to ship work off to other countries.
Many labor advocates do fear that this practice of employing foreign staffers deprives Americans of work.

ABSOLUTE PHRASE = noun/pronoun + participle + modifiers, objects, or complements

An absolute phrase often includes a noun or pronoun, a participle, and any modifiers, objects or complements of the phrase. Usually set off by commas, it modifies an entire sentence rather than a specific word.


Extra-curricular activities demanding more and more of their attention, many children don't have the time they need to develop strong emotional ties with their parents and siblings.

Some Minnesota parents, their patience and schedules stretched to the limit, have begun to fight back against extra-curricular programs that penalize children for spending time with their families instead of attending additional mandatory practices or meetings.
Family Life 1st! continues to spread the message about the importance of family togetherness, its members encouraged by support from the religious community, and surprisingly, the coaching community as well.

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE = preposition + object of the preposition + modifiers

A preposition, its object, and its modifiers make up a prepositional phrase. It often functions as an adjective or adverb, but it can function as a noun as well.


Although previously abundant, the water supply in the United States is expected to decline dramatically.

prepositional phrase = adjective modifying water supply
Almost half of Africa's population suffers from water-related diseases. prepositional phrase = adverb modifying suffers
The best time to practice water conservation is before a water shortage. prepositional phrase = noun functioning as a complement

GERUND PHRASE = gerund + modifiers, objects, or complements

A gerund phrase includes a gerund and its modifiers, objects, or complements. It always functions as a noun.


Becoming a Wimbledon finalist was Patrick Rafter's only thought as he competed against Andre Agassi during a semifinal match.

gerund phrase = subject
Venus Williams dreamt all her life about playing in the Grand Slam final at Wimbledon. gerund phrase = object of the preposition about
One of Serena Williams' biggest disappointments after her semifinal defeat was losing her spot for tennis singles in the Olympics. gerund phrase = complement

PARTICIPIAL PHRASE = participle + modifiers, objects, or complements

A participial phrase consists of a present or past participle and its modifiers, objects, or complements. It always functions as an adjective.


On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berliners remembering the end of the Cold War celebrated with outdoor concerts, impromptu parties, and spectacular fireworks.

present participle phrase = adjective modifying Berliners
Scattered across the world in bits and pieces, the Berlin Wall has virtually disappeared from its original location between East and West Berlin. past participle phrase = adjective modifying Berlin Wall

INFINITIVE PHRASE = infinitive + modifiers, objects, or complements

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 for even the most accomplished writers.

infinitive phrase = noun functioning as the subject
Proofreading your writing is a good way to ensure the absence of typing mistakes. infinitive phrase = adjective modifying way
To greatly increase the amount of stress in your life, leave your writing task until the night before it is due. infinitive phrase = adverb modifying leave

© 2000 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online

This page was created by Donella Westphal for St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN; it may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the names of the writers; if you revise it, please add your name(s) to the list of writers.

Last update: 23 August 2000

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/phraseformulas.html