How to Identify the Difference Between a Phrase and a Clause

Updated June 3, 2021
noun phrase example with small yellow car
    noun phrase example with small yellow car
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Sentences include a variety of phrases and clauses. But what’s the difference between a phrase and clause, and how can you tell if you’re using them correctly? Keep reading to identify the differences between a phrase and a clause when writing a strong sentence.

The Main Difference Between Phrases and Clauses

Phrases and clauses are both groups of two or more words that convey ideas. However, there is an easy way to tell if you’re using a phrase or a clause. The main difference is that clauses have both a subject and a predicate; phrases do not.

Phrases are part of clauses. They add meaning to sentences, but the sentence can exist without a phrase. Removing an entire clause from a sentence may affect understanding.


Types of Phrases

Phrases include details that make a sentence more interesting. They can clarify location, describe an action, and make a noun easier to picture. There are eight main types of phrases that add variety to the average sentence.

Noun Phrases

A noun phrase, also known as a nominal, functions as a noun in a sentence. It includes a noun and its modifiers, which describe more about the noun. You can use adjective phrases to further describe a noun.

Examples of noun phrases include:

  • The small yellow car belongs to my neighbor.
  • I bought a large Greek salad for lunch.
  • I want to see that new action movie.
  • The shy new student raised her hand.

Verb Phrases

Like noun phrases, verb phrases contain a verb and its modifiers. They can also include helping or linking verbs. Adverb phrases often appear within verb phrases.

Here are some examples of verb phrases:

  • I might stop at the store.
  • John was writing all day.
  • The children have been playing outside the window.
  • Our class will host a holiday party next month.

Gerund Phrases

A gerund is an -ing verb used as a noun. When you use a gerund phrase, you’re basically using a noun phrase with a gerund instead of a noun. For example:

  • Running around the pool isn’t safe.
  • I love driving with the windows down.
  • Talking to her friends always helps Juanita make decisions.
  • Getting into Stanford requires a lot of hard work.

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitives are verbs that begin with the linking verb to. You can start a sentence with an infinitive phrase, or you can use it in the sentence predicate. Infinitive phrases function as nouns or adjectives in a sentence, depending on how they are used.

Examples of infinitive phrases include:

  • My dream is to get married and live in Scotland.
  • You should use an electric mixer to blend brownie batter.
  • To drive a car, you must first obtain a learner’s permit.
  • Being available for overtime is a great way to get ahead.

Appositive Phrases

You use one-word appositives to clarify which specific noun you are talking about. Appositive phrases work the same way, except they use more than one word. Here are some sentences with appositive phrases:

  • My aunt, a huge music fan, attended the concert last night.
  • I searched for Duke, my big orange cat, after he went missing.
  • Emma’s dessert, a huge slab of cheesecake, looks delicious.
  • I’m expecting a call about my dream job, a club DJ, any moment now.

Prepositional Phrases

When you need to describe more about the position of a noun or pronoun, you use a preposition. A prepositional phrase includes all of the words that follow, which can include noun phrases. Check out these examples of prepositional phrases:

  • My father has always wanted to live near the ocean.
  • Did you find your phone under the couch cushions?
  • I’d love another scoop of chocolate ice cream.
  • Let’s cool off in the pool.

Participial Phrases

Participles are similar to gerunds in that they use verbs in a different way. Participial phrases typically begin with a participle (verb used as an adjective) and the modifiers that follow. Like adjectives, they modify nouns.

For example:

  • Having read the book already, Shawna knew the movie would be sad.
  • Sweeping up the kitchen, I noticed something shiny under the sink.
  • Pascal noticed his father wiping a tear from his eye.
  • Known for her beautiful painting skills, Mara felt comfortable charging a higher price for her portrait.

Absolute Phrases

It’s easy to mistake absolute phrases as clauses. Even though they appear to contain both a noun and a verb, the verb is functioning as a participle, not an action word. Some examples of absolute phrases include:

  • His heart pounding in his chest, Steven knocked on the door.
  • Mrs. Harvey picked up the note, already knowing what it said.
  • I watched as my husband drove away, his car chugging down the dirt road.
  • Its manner full of determination, the otter pounded the clamshell against the stone.

Need more help with any of these phrases? You can read more examples of phrases here.


Types of Clauses

Clauses are the backbone of a sentence. They contain the subject and predicate that make a sentence complete. While some clauses can’t stand alone as their own sentences, they must have a subject and verb to be classified as a clause.

Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are complete sentences. You can combine two independent clauses in a compound sentence, or add a dependent clause to create a complex sentence. Some examples of independent clauses include:

  • I drove to the library.
  • My sister owns a curling iron.
  • Mr. Saunders always orders cheese pizza.
  • I would love a trip to Spain.

Dependent Clauses

Dependent clauses are also known as subordinate clauses. While dependent clauses have subjects and verbs, they do not express a complete thought. They need to connect to an independent clause with a coordinating conjunction or subordinating conjunction.

Common types of dependent clauses are relative clauses, noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverbial clauses. Relative clauses begin with relative pronouns, and noun clauses function as either the subject or object of a sentence. Adjective clauses further describe the noun in a sentence and adverbial clauses modify the verb of the sentence.

Examples of these dependent clauses include:

  • Relative clause: I don’t know who gave me this lovely gift.
  • Noun clause: Whatever the boy said was enough to convince Greta to get on stage.
  • Adjective clause: My grandmother remembers when she heard that World War II had ended.
  • Adverbial clause: You’ll fail this class unless you do the extra credit assignment.

Creating Well-Written Sentences

Understanding the difference between clauses and phrases is the first step to varying your sentence styles. To learn more about sentence types, read an article on compound sentences or complex sentences. Once you’re ready to move on, try out these examples of compound-complex sentences!