22. Dr. E's grammar sequence

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22-4 Phrases and Phrase Types:
legal moves in the language game




Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 



Phrases are groups of words that function as individual parts of speech. To grasp this definition, first think of the English language as a set of individual words. Then, think of the ways we combine them. We don't just combine them willy nilly ; we just don't come out with strings of words like "just don't nilly we willy them combine." Instead, we have certain combinations we're really stuck on. If I give you a list of words--

French the young girls four

--and if I ask you to combine them in an order that makes sense, everyone in the class (if all are native speakers of English) will come up with exactly the same answer: "the four young French girls." But why?

Grammar is a combinatorial system that puts single words into rather standard combinations. The obvious purpose is to create meanings that are more complicated than meanings of single words. So, this combinatorial system (the grammar of our language) is the set of approved combinations, the ones that work for us, the ones we collectively recognize as meaningful.

Phrases are the first level of these 'approved' combinations, above the level of single words. Or, if language is a game (and it often feels like one), then words are the game pieces and phrases are the most basic legitimate 'moves' you can make with them. (If you like this approach, you'd love Stephen Pinker's wonderful book, The Language Instinct, my source for this basic approach.) Phrases can be minimal communications in themselves. Here's a noun phrase, for instance: "nice doggie." If you were walking down the street and a big Rotweiler was approaching you from the rear, would you stop and speak long, grammatical sentences to the dog? Would you explain, "I can see that you're upset, but you're really a nice doggie"? No, probably not. You'd probably say "nice doggie" and hope for the best. Phrases are minimal combinations, but ones we all understand. Dogs perhaps do, too.

Here are eight of these basic moves:

1) the noun phrase (a noun and all its modifiers)

Bad dog!
Nice doggie ... nice doggie ...
Great catch!
#?*&! liberals!
*#!*? conservatives!

2) the appositive phrase (a word or phrase placed beside a word it renames, defines, or explains; note that it is set off by commas)

My brother, the genius, got me started online.
Mom won't go near my room, the room from hell
Her mother, a nurse, suggested the medication.

"That tale consumed three enthralling hours a while back on Coast to Coast AM, the 5-hr.-a-night radio show devoted to all things weird and shepherded by Art Bell, a genial host shrouded, until recently, in his own poignant mystery." Richard Corliss, "The X Phones"

3) the adjective phrase (free standing adjectives)

She remembered her father's voice, friendly and warm.
They could smell the breakfast--meaty, fragrant, buttery, tantalizing.

4) the prepositional phrase (a phrase introduced by a preposition)

Against the wall!
Over the wall!
To the barricades

5) the noun absolute (This phrase modifies a whole sentence. It always consists of a noun, and usually a participle, but sometimes an adjective or a prepositional phrase.)

"Next, I went, my skis glimmering in the sun, my knees zooming with velocity,
my head prepared for any type of landing
..." Mike Dropp

"there lay a bundle of tiny rabbits, their unbelievably small delicate ears folded close, their little blind faces almost featureless." Katherine Anne Porter

6) the gerund phrase (a gerund with an object or modifier)

Tasting the new fajita recipe was an adventure.
Going nowhere fast wasn't my idea of progress.

7) the participial phrase (a participle with an object or modifiers)

Swimming across the lake, we wandered into warm and cold convection currents.
Wandering too far off the trail, they got hung up in brambles and had to turn back.

Why is she and hers always the center of things? How come she always knows exactly what to do and when? Giving advice; passing messages; healing the sick, hiding fugitives, loving, cooking, cooking, loving, preaching, singing, dancing and loving everybody like it was her job and hers alone. Toni Morrison, Beloved [nonacademic punctuation here for sure--G]

8) the infinitive phrase (an infinitive with an object or modifiers)

To think about it, he wanted to be alone.
To think about it is really a wise first step.

For further review of phrase types, look at Dr. E's Grammar Sequence for College Writers. A glossary of grammatical terms, including phrase types, appears in Hacker's textbook at section 45.





gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess 2003