Main page content

The Function of Phrases

Phrases may function as verbs, nouns, adverbs or adjectives.

Verb phrases

A verb phrase consists of a verb, its direct and/or indirect objects, and any adverbs, adverb phrases or adverb clauses that modify it. The predicate of a clause or sentence is always a verb phrase:

  • Corinne is trying to decide whether she wants to go to medical school or to go to law school.
  • Joe did not have all the ingredients the recipe called for; therefore, he decided to make something else.
  • After she had learned to drive, Alice felt more independent.
  • We will meet at the library at 3:30 p.m.

Noun phrases

A noun phrase consists of a pronoun or noun and any associated modifiers, including adjectives, adjective phrases, adjective clauses and other nouns in the possessive case.

As is the case with nouns, a noun phrase may act as a subject, the object of a verb or verbal, a subject complement or object complement, or the object of a preposition, as in the following examples:

Small children often insist that they can do things by themselves.
Object of a verb
To type quickly and accurately is Eugene’s goal.
Object of a preposition
The Arctic explorers were caught unawares by the spring breakup.
Subject complement
Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster.
Object complement
I consider Loki my favorite cat.

Noun phrases using verbals

Since some verbals—in particular, the gerund and the infinitive—may act as nouns, they may also form the nucleus of noun phrases:

  • Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime.

However, since verbals are formed from verbs, they may also take direct objects and be modified by adverbs. Gerund phrases and infinitive phrases are noun phrases consisting of a verbal, its modifiers (both adjectives and adverbs) and objects:

  • Running a marathon in the summer is thirsty work.
  • Bridget is planning to buy a house next month.

Adjective phrases

An adjective phrase modifies a noun or pronoun. Adjective phrases are often constructed from participles or prepositions together with their objects, as in the following:

Example Explanation
I was driven almost mad by the sound of my neighbour’s constant hammering. The prepositional phrase of my neighbour’s constant hammering acts as an adjective modifying the noun sound.
My director locked his keys in the trunk of a borrowed car. The prepositional phrase of a borrowed car acts as an adjective modifying the noun trunk.
We saw Peter dashing across the parking lot. Here the participle phrase dashing across the parking lot acts as an adjective describing the proper noun Peter.
We picked up the records broken in the scuffle. The participle phrase broken in the scuffle modifies the noun phrase the records.

Adverb phrases

A prepositional phrase may also be an adverb phrase that functions as an adverb, as in the following:

Example Explanation
Joe bought some spinach when he went to the corner store. The prepositional phrase to the corner store acts as an adverb modifying the verb went.
Lightning flashed brightly in the night sky. The prepositional phrase in the night sky functions as an adverb modifying the verb flashed.
In early October, Giselle planted twenty tulip bulbs; unfortunately, squirrels ate the bulbs and none bloomed. The prepositional phrase in early October acts as an adverb modifying the entire sentence.
We will meet at the library at 3:30 p.m. The prepositional phrase at 3:30 p.m. acts as an adverb modifying the verb phrase will meet.
The dogs were sniffing about the letter carrier’s feet. The prepositional phrase about the letter carrier’s feet acts as an adverb modifying the compound verb were sniffing.

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.

Date modified: