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Clauses vs. Phrases: Here’s what you NEED to know

Clauses vs. Phrases: Here’s what you NEED to know

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English can be confusing. Thanks to the language’s many different origins, the vocabulary alone is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

You have words that should rhyme but don’t, you have nouns that give you irregular plurals that seem arbitrary, and you have some words whose spelling will confound even the most practiced native speakers.

To get a better idea of how confusing English vocabulary is, you can just check out our article on weird English words.
To muddy the waters further, English grammar is filled with strange rules that don’t seem to make sense.
Why must we always use an apostrophe when using the possessive “s” except with the pronoun “it”? Why do some argue that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition?
For many, even the structure of the English language, the basic syntax, can be hard to learn. This is why people may have run-on sentences without knowing it or write in sentence fragments without realizing their faux pas.

The good news is that, when it comes to sentence structure, a lot of the confusion can be cleared up if people knew the difference between a clause and a phrase.
Clauses Vs Phrases Pinterest

What is the difference between a clause and a phrase?

Even though clauses and phrases are both parts of an English sentence, they play very different roles. A phrase consists of words that act as a unit, yet it does not contain both a subject and a verb. On the other hand, clauses have a subject as well as a verb.

Another thing to note is that there are different types of phrases and different types of clauses. More specifically, there are eight types of phrases, including noun, verb, gerund, and participial. Alternatively, there are two main types of clauses: main and subordinate.

While a main clause can express a full idea, a subordinate one can’t and needs to attach itself to a main clause to complete an idea. Also, there are several types of subordinate clauses, including relative, adverbial, and noun clauses.

This all might feel overwhelming at first, but it will all make sense once we take a closer look at these different parts of speech.



As mentioned earlier, phrases are groups of words that relate to each other; nevertheless, a phrase can’t express a full idea because it does not contain both a subject and a verb.

Here are a few examples:


On the radio

returning home

The tallest man alive


These are all small components of a sentence, and, on their own, they don’t make much sense. It’s only when you put several phrases together that a larger meaning starts to appear.

However, before looking into how different phrases come together, we should first learn about the different types of phrases.


What are the different types of phrases?

The eight types of phrases are as follows:

  1. noun
  2. verb
  3. gerund
  4. infinitive
  5. appositive
  6. participial
  7. prepositional
  8. absolute

Let’s look at each one separately:


Noun phrases

Whenever you have a noun surrounded by a few determiners and modifiers, that’s a noun phrase.

In case you’re wondering, a modifier is any word that modifies the meaning of a noun, including adjectives. A determiner is a specific type of modifier that helps determine the type of noun, which means that articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” are all determiners.

Here are a few examples of noun phrases you might come across:


The rich businessman

The big dog

A story as old as time

The long and winding road



Verb phrases

A verb, its object, and any attached modifiers make up the verb phrase.
In this case, modifiers can also include adverbs in addition to your normal adjectives, determiners, and relative clauses (more on that last one later).

Here are a few examples of verb phrases:


was taking a walk

read the book

ate the delicious dinner

ran quickly towards the exit


By now, you might have noticed that, at its simplest, an English sentence consists of a noun phrase and a verb phrase.

For instance, the sentence “the big dog was taking a walk” consists of the noun phrase “the big dog” and the verb phrase “was taking a walk.”


Gerund phrases

A gerund phrase is a very specific type of noun phrase, one that starts with a gerund.
To make things clearer, here are a few examples:


eating a healthy breakfast

learning a new language

going for a walk in the park


Just like any other noun phrase, a gerund phrase can act as the subject of a sentence or the object of a verb. Take a look at these examples:


Eating a healthy breakfast is important

The big dog likes going for a walk in the park


Infinitive phrases

Another way to start a noun phrase is with an infinitive verb, in which case you get an infinitive phrase. Let’s look at a few examples:


to know the truth

to be free

to travel the world


Again, like any other noun phrase, infinitive phrases can act as the subject of a sentence or the object of a verb.

Here are a couple of examples:


To know the truth was the goal of the enlightenment project.

The rich businessman like to travel the world.



Appositive phrases

There are a few ways you can define a noun. On the one hand, you can resort to modifiers. Alternatively, you can use appositive phrases.

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that is used as an interjection to help define another noun phrase. If all this seems like gibberish, it will make more sense once you take a look at the following examples:


The CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, made an announcement today.

Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive, broke numerous records during the Olympics.

The idea, getting a company jet, was accepted


You’ve probably noticed a few things. Firstly, the appositive phrase can be any noun phrase, including a gerund phrase as well as an infinitive phrase.

Secondly, the appositive phrases shown above are surrounded on either side by commas, and this is because they are an unnecessary addition that can be removed from the sentence without affecting its overall meaning.

After all, the following sentences are grammatically correct:


The CEO of Tesla made an announcement today.

Usain Bolt broke numerous records during the Olympics.

The idea was accepted.


These types of appositives are known as non-restrictive or non-essential, and their only function is to help clarify matters. They let us know who the CEO of Tesla is, what Usain Bolt is known for, and what idea we are talking about.

Conversely, restrictive appositive phrases, also known as essential, are necessary for the meaning of the sentence and cannot be removed without affecting the overall meaning.

Seeing as they are necessary to the sentence, essential appositive phrases are not surrounded by commas. Here are a few examples:


My friend Michael is on his way.

The girl Selena was happy.


In the above two examples, the appositives don’t just clarify matters; they are essential for the meaning of the entire sentence.

Without them, we would not know which friend the speaker is talking about or who was the happy girl.


Participial phrases

Anytime a word originates from a verb but does not act like one, you have a verbal on your hand. So far, we’ve looked at two different types of verbals: gerunds and infinitives.

Now, we will look at the third type of verbals: participles.
Participles come in two main flavors: present and past. Present participles end in –ing, while past participles end in –d, -t, or –n.

Whereas gerunds and infinitives act as nouns, participles act as adjectives, modifying nouns. Ergo, a participial phrase is another way you can modify a noun phrase.

Here are a few examples of participles in action:


Shooting stars
As you can see, the participle shooting describes the nature of the stars in question.

frozen food
Again, the participle frozen describes the nature of the food.


If you are ever wondering whether you are looking at a participle or a gerund, just ask yourself what the word ending in –ing is doing.

If it is acting as a noun, then it is a gerund. But, if it is modifying a noun, it is a participle.

With that said, let’s look at a few examples of participial phrases:


Knowing the truth, the woman was able to make the right decision.
In the above sentence, “knowing the truth” modifies the noun phrase “the woman” and gives us an idea of what state of mind she was in. The participial phrase in this case acts as a sort of adjective.

Burnt from overheating, the toast was inedible.
The phrase “burnt from overheating” describes the toast and gives us an idea as to why it was inedible.


As you’ve noticed, these phrases act as adjectives. What’s more, because they are inessential to the overall meaning of the sentence, they are followed by a comma.

However, participial phrases that are necessary to the meaning of a sentence act like essential appositives: They are not surrounded by commas, and they are inextricable from the main sentence.

For example, take a look at the following sentence:


“I like the sound of water rushing down the stream.”

“Rushing down the stream” is a participial phrase, but it is a necessary one because removing it would alter the meaning of the whole thing.


Interestingly, there is a mistake that many English speakers make when it comes to participial phrases: the dangling participle.

As we saw earlier, a participial phrase can come at the beginning of the sentence and modify the subject of said sentence.

However, if the participial phrase doesn’t have a noun to modify, then you end up with a dangling participle.
Here is a simple example:


Knowing the consequences, it rained.


Take a moment and think who exactly is supposed to have “known the consequences.” It certainly isn’t the expletive “it.”

Another case of dangling participle comes about when the participial phrase at the beginning of the sentence is supposed to modify the object of the sentence instead of the subject.

For example:


Feeling remorseful, the priest heard the man’s confessions.


This sort of mistake is very common and can be very confusing to the reader. Who is feeling remorseful?

Is it the man confessing his mistakes or the priest hearing the confession? Obviously, it’s the man, but the sentence structure made it seem otherwise.

The correct way of structuring the above sentence is “Feeling remorseful, the man confessed to the priest.”


Prepositional phrases

Any phrase that starts with a preposition is a prepositional phrase. These are very versatile creatures and can act as nouns, adverbs, or adjectives.

The following examples will help clear things up:


The fireman was in the truck.

Here, “in the truck” is a prepositional phrase that acts as an adjective, describing the state of the fireman.

We slept in the hotel.

“In the hotel” behaves as an adverb that defines how we slept.

I played for a while.

Again, “for a while” acts as an adverb, identifying the length of time spent playing.

He looked at me.

Some verbs, like look and talk, take as their objects prepositional phrases.


Absolute phrases

Similar to participial phrases, absolute phrases modify nouns within a sentence. However, absolute phrases are always non-essential and can be removed from the sentence at any time, so they are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Structurally, an absolute phrase consists of a subject or noun but no action verb whatsoever. This noun is usually modified by a participle but not always.

A few examples should clear everything up:


His head held high, the innocent man walked in and faced his accusers.

The absolute phrase “his head held high” modifies the innocent man and lets us in on his psychological state. Also, “held” is a participle that modifies the noun “head.”


Sam heard the gunshot, its voice echoing throughout the canyon.

In this case, the phrase “its voice echoing throughout the canyon” modifies the noun “gunshot,” and “echoing” acts as a participle that modifies “its voice.”


Gun in hand, the officer cautiously walked into the crime scene.

Even though “gun in hand” is an absolute phrase that modifies “the officer,” there is no participle here.


Now, having seen the different kinds of phrases, let’s move on to clauses.



Unlike phrases, clauses always contain both a subject and a verb. The simplest example is the following:


The girl is dancing.


It’s a complete thought onto itself, where “the girl” is the subject of the sentence and “is dancing” is the verb part. You will also notice that this simple clause is made up of two different phrases: a noun phrase and a verb phrase.

Moreover, a clause can contain the object of a verb.


Sarah took the book.


The above sentence is a single clause, and “the book” is the object of the verb “took.”

Ergo, one way you can tell phrases from clauses is whether the words make sense on their own. While a phrase won’t make sense, a clause can stand on its own because both the subject and verb are present.

But, does this mean that every clause can stand on its own?

As you have probably guessed, the answer is no. It depends on the type of clause in question.

There are two types of clauses: main and subordinate.


Main clauses

A main clause delivers a complete thought that can stand on its own.

Here are a few illustrative examples:


The boy was smiling.

The water fell over the cliff.

Melanie enjoyed the pizza.


As you’ll notice, each clause consists of a subject followed by a verb, forming a complete sentence. Put another way, every sentence must contain at least one main clause; otherwise, the sentence will be a fragment and grammatically incorrect.

That said, you can combine two main clauses together into one sentence using a conjunction, such as “and,” “or,” and “but.”

Take a look at these examples:


Melanie enjoyed the pizza, and her father was happy to celebrate her birthday.

The water fell over the cliff, but the rangers managed to save some of it first.


That said, you need to remember that if you try to stuff a sentence with more than one main clause without using any conjunctions, you end up with a run-on sentence. This is another infamous grammatical mistake that many people fall into.


Subordinate clauses

Whereas a main clause can stand on its own, a subordinate one is incapable of doing so.

You see, even though a subordinate clause contains both a subject and a verb, it presents an incomplete idea, one that needs another main clause.
Here are a few subordinate clauses without their main clause:


Whenever I go fishing

As the man crossed the street

Even though he knew the correct answer


If you look closely, you should notice a few things: For starters, every subject in the subordinate clauses shown above is preceded by a subordinating conjunction, such as whenever, as, and even though.

The second thing to notice that these clauses seem to be missing something: What happens every time I go fishing? What took place while the man crossed the street? What did the guy do despite knowing the answer?

And, this is where subordinating clauses get their name. They tie two different clauses together by making one dependent on the other. Here are the above examples with their main clauses:


Whenever I go fishing, I bring my radio with me.

As the man crossed the street, he saw his daughter coming the other way.

Even though he knew the correct answer, he missed the question during his exam.


In the above sentences, the main clause carries the information that matters most. The subordinate clause carries information that isn’t as important but is related to the main clause somehow.

For instance, in the last sentence, the important information is that “he missed the question during his exam;” the fact that “he already knew the correct answer” only serves to add insult to injury.

Now, subordinate clauses don’t have to come at the beginning of a sentence; they can also come in the middle or end.

However, while a subordinate clause that comes at the beginning of a sentence will be followed by a comma, one that comes at the end will not be preceded by a comma.

Here are the above examples but reversed:


I bring my radio with me whenever I go fishing.

The man saw his daughter coming the other way as he crossed the street.

He missed the question during his exam even though he knew the correct answer.


There are different types of subordinate clauses, including relative clauses, adverbial clauses, and noun clauses.
Let’s take a look at each of them:


Relative clauses

A relative clause is a unique type of subordinate clause that always starts with a relative pronoun or with a relative adverb.
If you’re wondering, relative pronouns include who, whom, whose, which, and that. On the other hand, relative adverbs include when, where, and why.

When it comes to relative clauses, the relative pronoun or adverb plays the role of the subordinating conjunction and tethers a dependent clause to an independent one.

What’s more, the relative clause acts as an adjective of sorts, modifying the noun that comes before it.

Here are a few examples:


I saw the student whom the teacher had scolded.

The group arrived at the theatre where the debate was about to take place.

The child was happy that her father had returned from work.


There are a few things to notice here: Firstly, each relative clause is not separated by a comma from the rest of the sentence.

Even though this might be normal for other subordinate clauses, this isn’t always the case for relative clauses.

You see, a relative clause can either be essential or be non-essential.

An essential relative clause, one that is indispensable to the meaning of the sentence, does not need a comma.

All the relative clauses in the above examples are essential.

However, an inessential relative clause is one that can be removed without affecting the overall meaning too much. Ergo, these subordinate clauses are separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Here are a few examples to illustrate this:


My dog dove underneath the kitchen table, where he keeps most of his toys.

The group arrived at the Walnut Street Theatre, where the debate was about to take place.


To really drive the point home, let’s compare the last example in the inessential relative clauses category with the second example in the essential relative clauses category:


The group arrived at the theatre where the debate was about to take place.

The group arrived at the Walnut Street Theatre, where the debate was about to take place.


In the first case, because the theatre is undefined, we need the relative clause to specify which theatre we are talking about.

Otherwise, we could be referring to any theater in the country.

Alternatively, in the second case, seeing as the theater is defined as the “Walnut Street Theater,” the relative clause becomes inessential and doesn’t help specify the theater further.

There is another interesting thing to point out about relative clauses, specifically those that use relative pronouns.

Not only does a relative pronoun act as a subordinating conjunction, but it can also act as the subject of the relative clause itself.

Here are a couple of examples:


I met the man who scored the goal.

Here, “who scored the goal” is a relative clause, where “who” is both subordinating conjunction and subject of the clause itself.


I made the cake which was eaten at the wedding.

Again, “which” is a relative pronoun that acts as the subordinating conjunction as well as the subject of the relative clause.


Noun clauses

If relative clauses acted as adjectives, then noun clauses act as nouns. It’s that simple.
Usually, the noun clause is preceded by words like “what,” “how,” “when,” “who,” and “whoever.”

Here are a few examples:


You wouldn’t believe what I saw in that cave.

We are trying to find out how we can best solve this puzzle.


You might be temporarily confused because “who” and “whoever” are relative pronouns that always preceded a relative clause. But, what distinguishes a noun clause from a relative clause is their part in speech. The following two examples should clear things up:


I will find the culprit who did this crime.

In the above sentence, “who did this crime” is a relative clause as it acts as an adjective to the noun “culprit.”


I will know who did this crime.

Alternatively, in this latter sentence, “who did this crime” is a noun clause that acts as the object of the verb “know.”


Adverbial clauses

If a subordinating conjunction can act as a noun and an adjective, then it stands to reason that it can also act as an adverb. These are clauses that modify the verb, giving us a better idea of how an action happened, why it happened, or when it happened.
In fact, most subordinate clauses you come across will be adverbial clauses.

Here are a few examples:


When the doorbell rang, the dog started barking.

I couldn’t bring the bag because it was too heavy.

As there was a crisis, the meeting went on for a long time.


In all of the above examples, the adverbial clause tells us something about the verb in the main clause.

For instance, in the first sentence, the adverbial clause tells us when the dog started barking.

In the second sentence, “because it was too heavy” lets us know the reason I couldn’t bring the bag, and, in the third sentence, “as there was a crisis” explains why the meeting went on for a long time.