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This page Phrase is part of the linguistics series. Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
This page Phrase is part of the linguistics series.
Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words (or sometimes a single word) that form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause.



From Late Latin phrasis (“diction”), from Ancient Greek φράσις (phrasis, “manner of expression”), from φράζω (phrazō, “I tell, express”).


Examine the following sentence:

The house at the end of the street is red.

The words in bold form a phrase; together they act like a noun. This phrase can further be broken down insofar as a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective can be identified:

at the end of the street

Further, a smaller prepositional phrase can be identified inside this greater prepositional phrase:

of the street

And within the greater prepositional phrase, one can identify a noun phrase:

the end of the street

Phrases can be identified by constituency tests such as substitution (=replacement). For instance, the prepositional phrase at the end of the street could be replaced by an adjective such as nearby: the nearby house or even the house nearby. The end of the street could also be replaced by another noun phrase, such as the crossroads to produce the house at the crossroads.

Heads and dependents

Most phrases have an important word defining the type and linguistic features of the phrase. This word is the head of the phrase and gives its name to the phrase category. The heads in the following phrases are in bold:

too slowly - Adverb phrase (AdvP)
very happy - Adjective phrase (AP)
the massive dinosaur - Noun phrase (NP)
at lunch - Preposition phrase (PP)
watch TV - Verb phrase (VP)

The head can be distinguished from its dependents (the rest of the phrase other than the head) because the head of the phrase determines many of the grammatical features of the phrase as a whole. The examples just given show the five most commonly acknowledged types of phrases. Further phrase types can be assumed, although doing so is not common. For instance one might acknowledge subordinator phrases:

before that happened - Subordinator phrase (SP)

This "phrase" is more commonly classified as a full subordinate clause and therefore many grammars would not label it as a phrase. If one follows the reasoning of heads and dependents, however, then subordinate clauses should indeed qualify as phrases. Most theories of syntax see most if not all phrases as having a head. Sometimes, however, non-headed phrases are acknowledged. If a phrase lacks a head, it is known as exocentric, whereas phrases with heads are endocentric.

Confusion: phrases in theories of syntax

The common use of the term "phrase" is different from that employed by some phrase structure theories of syntax. The everyday understanding of the phrase is that it consists of two or more words, whereas depending on the theory of syntax that one employs, individual words may or may not qualify as phrases. Most prominently in this regard, theories of syntax that employ X-bar theory will acknowledge many individual words as phrases. This practice is due to the fact that sentence structure is analyzed in terms of a universal schema, the X-bar schema, which sees each head as projecting three levels of structure: a minimal level, an intermediate level, and a maximal level. Thus an individual noun for instance, such as Susan in Susan laughed, will project up to an intermediate level and a maximal level, which means that Susan qualifies as a phrase. This concept of the phrase notion is a source of confusion for students of syntax.

Many other theories of syntax do not employ the X-bar schema and are therefore less likely to encounter this confusion. Dependency grammars, for instance, do not acknowledge phrase structure in the manner associated with phrase structure grammars and therefore do not acknowledge individual words as phrases.

The verb phrase (VP) as a source of controversy

Most if not all theories of syntax acknowledge verb phrases (VPs), but they can diverge greatly in the types of verb phrases that they posit. Phrase structure grammars acknowledge both finite verb phrases and non-finite verb phrases as constituents. Dependency grammars, in contrast, acknowledge just non-finite verb phrases as constituents. The distinction is illustrated with the following examples:

The Republicans may nominate Newt Gingrich. - Finite VP in bold
The Republicans may nominate Newt Gingrich. - Non-finite VP in bold

Since there is disagreement concerning the status of finite VPs (whether they are constituents or not), empirical considerations are needed. Grammarians will employ constituency tests to shed light on the controversy. Constituency tests are diagnostics for identifying the constituents of sentences and they are thus essential for identifying phrases. Interestingly, the results of constituency tests do not support the existence of a finite VP constituent.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Phrase" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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