The Easiest Way to Identify a Phrase in a Sentence

To be able to identify a phrase in a sentence, you first need to establish the fact that the group of words in question is not a clause. What this means is that you also need to know how to identify a clause.

The reason for this is that for most students of examination English, the confusion arises from the difficulty in distinguishing between a phrase and a clause.

Secondly, you need to know what we mean by ‘a group of words’. I guess that’s not a problem, right?

Again, in most tests about grammatical forms, structure and function, examiners give students groups of words to state whether they are phrases or clauses and the specific type of phrase or clause.

Although there may be situations where a single word can be considered a phrase, I want us to leave that for another discussion. Thankfully, you will hardly see a question of that nature in the English tests we are currently looking at.

Thirdly, your knowledge of what constitutes a complete sentence will help you to easily identify a phrase in a given sentence.

The Difference Between a Phrase and a Clause

You will soon discover why your ability to construct a sentence or identify one is so important in telling whether a group of words is a phrase or not.

The fourth and final key to helping you know a phrase each time you see one is its peculiar characteristics.

Are you finding it difficult to identify a phrase in a sentence? This post aims to help you solve your problem once and for all.

So let’s begin.

Characteristics of a Phrase

I believe that you will find it much easier to identify a phrase in a sentence if you know the following distinguishing features of a phrase.

Please note that I will not emphasize the usual textbook definition of ‘phrase’ in this post.

From my personal experience helping students understand phrases, clauses and other grammatical structures, I have learned that mere definitions confuse learners more rather than help them grasp what they need in order to pass a test satisfactorily.

I am by no means underestimating the importance of definitions. All I’m saying is that when it comes to solving test questions under examination conditions, what I’m about to reveal to you now tends to be much more helpful.

At least, this is what I can say with respect to the thousands of high school students and some university undergraduates I coached for crucial English Language tests for decades.

Please find the definition of a phrase in this post.

Here are the key characteristics of a phrase to help you identify a phrase in any sentence.

A phrase usually contains a headword and a modifier.

This is what happens with most noun phrases, adjectival phrases and adverbial phrases.

Let’s have some examples. Note that the headword is in bold lettering and the rest in the italicized group of words are modifiers/qualifiers.

NOUN PHRASE: You will need a very good attorney to help you with your motor insurance claims.

ADJECTIVAL PHRASE: Linda is an exceptionally nice travel agent.

ADVERBIAL PHRASE: Victor speaks too fast for my liking.

It is not easy to pick a sentence out of a phrase.

In a lot of cases, you can easily identify a phrase in a sentence if you apply this rule

Unless a phrase contains a clause that functions as a modifier, it is mostly impossible to pick a complete sentence out of a group of words that is a phrase.

(Note that this is what ‘without a FINITE VERB and a SUBJECT’ you will find in a definition of a phrase is about)

Now you know why you must learn how to construct complete sentences or point out any word or group of words that is not a sentence.

Here are some examples:

A. My job is to teach you how to speak like a gentleman. (NOUN PHRASE)

B. You will have to explain that to the grand jury of Fulton County. (NOUN PHRASE)

C. Many insurance companies are beginning to take their clients’ claims rather sceptically. (ADVERBIAL PHRASE)

Try picking a sentence out of the above phrases. Have you realized how impossible it is? This should help you to see that they are not clauses but phrases.

For example, none of the selected words or groups of words below is a sentence.

‘My job’

‘the grand’

‘The Grand Jury’

‘Grand jury ‘

‘Jury of Fulton County’

‘Jury ‘

‘Rather sceptically’


There is no limit to the number of words in a phrase.

A phrase may consist of just a word or two but it can also be as long as practically possible. In the second scenario, you will notice a lot of embedded modifiers or qualifiers.

A phrase may contain a clause.

When this happens, the clause is only there as a modifier of the headword which may be a noun, adjective or adverb.

Here is an example of a phrase that contains a clause:

The last few months which turned him into a monster also marked the beginning of his downfall.

The expression in bold lettering above is a phrase. It is, in fact, a noun phrase. Note that it contains a modifier: ‘which turned him into a monster’.

This modifier is an adjectival clause that qualifies the noun phrase ‘the first few months’.

A Prepositional Phrase is introduced by a preposition.

Here are a few examples of prepositional phrases.

under the tree

on my case

before he left

with them

from a distant country

in detail

after the game

Note that some people call a prepositional phrase an adverbial phrase or an adjectival phrase. The reason is that these are the two major functions of prepositional phrases.

Let’s have a couple of sentences from the examples above.

A. Ellen arrived with them.

‘with them’ is clearly a prepositional phrase. Since it functions as a modifier of the verb ‘arrived’, it is proper to call it an adverbial phrase.

B. Bring me the chair under the tree.

‘under the tree’ is a prepositional phrase. Here, it is functioning as a qualifier of the noun ‘chair’. For that matter, it can also be called an adjectival phrase.

50+ Adjectival Phrase Examples

20 Examples of the Function of the Adverbial Clause

Before you leave: Test yourself.

Remember that one of the easiest ways to identify a phrase in a sentence is to check if it is possible to pick a sentence from the group of words in question.

When you learn to test for the other characteristics of a phrase, you will be in a better position to say quickly whether a specified expression is a phrase.

Finally, here is a teaser for you. Tell me, would you say the highlighted group of words in each sentence below is a phrase? You may give your reasons or leave any other comment.

SENTENCE A: Prices on the London Stock Exchange are stable this fall.

SENTENCE B. Susan bought a rather expensive gift for her son on his birthday.

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Ralph Nyadzi is the Director of Studies at Cegast Academy. He is a qualified English tutor with decades of experience behind him. Since 2001, he has successfully coached thousands of High School General Arts WASSCE candidates in English, Literature and related subjects. He combines his expertise with a passion for lifelong learning to guide learners from varying backgrounds to achieve their educational goals. Ralph shares lessons from his blogging journey on BloggingtotheMax. He lives with River, his pet cat, in the Central Region of Ghana.

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