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4) Phrases in Sentences

The Story so far...


In the beginning there was the Word…

Actually, as we have already seen in previous articles, in terms of written language it would be more appropriate to say ‘in the beginning there was the morpheme’, because words are composed of different morphemes joined together in a variety of ways in order to generate the complexities of written language.

Morphemes fit into distinct classes: whether they are bound or unbound, lexical or grammatical.

The words created by these morphemes themselves fit into distinct classes – whether they be nouns, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, adjectives etc.. Again, words can have a grammatical or lexical function.

In this final look at the structures of written language, we will be considering how the words themselves follows a series of rules and patterns when they are combined to form phrases, which themselves are combined to form clauses, which themselves are combined to form sentences.

This is a lot to cover, and as a consequence we will only really be touching the surface of each of them. For more information on any of these aspects of written language, please see the bibliography at the end of this entry.


What is a Phrase?


If you are travelling to a new country with an unfamiliar language, you might pick up a ‘phrasebook’ from the airport on the way there. In this book, the ‘phrases’ would take the form of complete sentences: ‘Good morning – habari za asubuhi’; ‘Have you got a loaf of bread please – avez vous un pain rustique, si vous plait’.

This sense of the word ‘phrase’ is something that, as linguists, we need to forget. In linguistic terms, a phrase is not a complete sentence. It is not a proverbial or clichéd saying (‘as the old phrase goes’), nor is it a way of speaking.

Linguistically, a phrase is a syntactic unit which typically consists of more than one word, and is intermediate between word and clause level in sentences. In most modern grammars it is regarded as the cornerstone of syntactic theory.

In a phrase the individual words cohere together to form a single syntactic entity. In other words, a phrase is a combination of words which generate specific meaning. What makes phrases distinctive is that they are capable of being moved around and also of being replaced by another word.

For example, in the following sentence the words in bold form a phrase, and one reason we know this is because they are capable of being moved within the sentence, or of being replaced by other words. Consider this example from Geoffrey Finch (2005):

The man went down the hill
Down the hill went the man (movement of the phrase)
He went there (replacement of the phrase)

While the movement test is fairly straightforward, phrases formed by replacement or substitution are sometimes harder to spot. For example, consider this example (again from Geoffrey Finch):

The man went down the hill and the dog did too.

Here, the word ‘did’ is substituting for the string ‘went down the hill’. The sentence is saying that the man went down the hill, and the dog went down the hill, but it has abbreviated itself with ‘did’ in order to avoid repetition. As a consequence, the replacement is evidence for identifying it as a phrase.

As Nigel Fabb writes then, two principal distinctions of the phrase are:

(i) if a sequence of words can be moved as a group, they may form a phrase (the movement test); (ii) if a sequence of words can be replaced by a single word, they may form a phrase (the replacement test). (Fabb, 1994. pp. 3-4)

The Five Types of Phrases


There are five distinct types of phrases, which each behave in a different way within a sentence. These types of phrase are formed out of the main lexical word classes, because they function in the same way as those word classes. So, there are:

1. Noun phrases (NP)

2. Verb phrases (VP)

3. Adjective phrases (AJP)

4. Adverb phrases (AVP)

5. Prepositional Phrase (PP)

Identifying the type of phrase means identifying the head word contained within it. Each phrase has a head word, taken from the word class which forms its basis. A noun phrase will have a noun as its head, a verb phrase a verb, and so on. In very simple phrases the phrase may just consist of this head word. In the following sentence ‘mould’ is acting as a noun phrase:

Stephen found mould beneath the bath

Actually, from this sentence we can identify three distinct phrases:


Modification of Phrases


Of course as we have seen, phrases can contain more words than just the head word. These additional words often perform the function of modifying the head word, or of adding additional information to it.

Modification then, is a process which allows phrases to expand and incorporate a variety of subordinate material. It can occur either before or after the head word and consists of words, phrases and sentences which are dependent in some way on it.

Where modification occurs before the head it is termed pre-modification, and where after, post-modification.

The kinds of words which can fulfil this function depend largely on the type of phrase itself. This is because phrases take their character from the head word. Noun phrases, for example, can be extensively modified both before and afterwards by a range of items, whereas prepositional phrases are subject to much more limited modification.

Modification of Noun Phrases


In order to explore modifiers more fully, we will use the Noun Phrase as an example, since of all the phrase types it is the one most prone to extensive modification.

If we take our original sentence with a one-word Noun Phrase as an example, the head noun in this phrase is clearly ‘mould’:

Stephen found
mould
beneath the bath



Verb
phrase
Noun
phrase
Adjective phrase

We could, though, add a word before it:


Stephen found    the mould    beneath the bath

The word ‘the’ clearly belongs to the noun phrase. To say ‘Stephen found the’ would not make as much sense as ‘the mould’. The word ‘the’ is therefore adding information to the head noun, and is modifying it. Because this modification is taking place before the head noun, it is known as a pre-modifier.

Pre-modifiers


Pre-modifiers come in a variety of forms. Here, we are going to look briefly at the following:

1) Determiners

2) Pre-determiners

3) Adjectives

4) Verbal Adjectives

5) Nouns

1) Determiners:

There are five types of determiner in the English language. The following definitions have been taken from Sara Thorne’s Mastering Advanced English Language (2008. pp. 18-19):

1) Articles: Articles can be definite (the) or indefinite (a or an). The former specifies something particular, while the latter does not:

the dog, a dog, the house, a house

2) Possessive determiners: Possessive determiners are used to suggest ownership of a noun. There are seven forms: my, your, his, her, its, our and their.

my book, our suitcases, their motives

3) Demonstrative determiners: Demonstrative determiners express a contrast, establishing either a close or a more distant relationship.

This week is going slowly.
The shop assistant said that she wanted these things kept aside for her.

4) Indefinite determiners:  Sometimes referred to as quantifiers because they quantify the noun (see Jeffries, (2006) for more details). Indefinite determiners convey a range of meanings. The most common ones are: all, some, any and no; every, each, either, neither, one and another; both, several and enough; many, more, most, few, little, fewer, less, fewest and least.

Some grapes would be nice.
Several children are expected today.
Every adult must take some responsibility.
More chocolate, anybody?

5) Numbers:  Sometimes referred to as enumerators because they provide a specific number for the noun (see Jeffries, (2006) for more details). When numbers precede nouns, they are functioning as determiners. Both cardinal numbers (one, two, three, and so on) and ordinal numbers (first, second, third, and so on) can be used as determiners.

First place goes to Jack.
Six sheep have escaped from the farm.

It is worth noting, as Thorne does, the difference between a determiner and a pronoun: “A determiner precedes a noun, while a pronoun replaces a noun, noun phrase or noun clause” (2008, p. 19).

So, we can now add determiners to the noun phrase in our sentence:

Stephen found    the mould    beneath the bath
Stephen found    my mould    beneath the bath
Stephen found    that mould    beneath the bath
Stephen found    some mould    beneath the bath
Stephen found    his first mould    beneath the bath

2) Pre-determiners:

Pre-determiners, as the name suggests, prefix determiners. Let’s see this at work within the noun phrase used above:



Pre-determiner
determiner
head noun



all
the
mould

As you can see, a pre-determiner can still be a grammatical determiner, but because it appears before the determiner (which appears before the noun). Pre-determiners are usually either numerical or indefinite in form. In other words, they usually add a sense of quantity to the noun:

Pre-determiner
determiner
head noun



some of
the
mould
Twelve tons
of
mould

However, these roles can be inter-changeable. Where the determiner is numerical or indefinite, the pre-determiner can be an article, possessive or determinate:

Pre-determiner
determiner
head noun



Her
fifth
time
Their
seven
essays

3) Adjectives:

Pre-modifiers can include adjectives, and it is here where phrase expression can become more creative and descriptive. For example:


Pre-determiner
determiner
Adjective
head noun




all
the
smelly
mould

Actually, you can include as many adjective pre-modifiers as you want – although after a while the phrase does start to sound a little ridiculous:

Pre-determiner
determiner
Adjective
head noun




all
the
smelly, sticky, gangrenous, irritatingly ever-present
mould
4) Verbal Adjectives:


By ‘verbal’ I do not mean that they are spoken, but that they derive from a verb.

For example, in the phrase ‘to creep’, ‘creep’ is a verb. However, we can easily modify the verb into an adjective pre-modifier in the noun phrase if we were to describe the head noun as ‘creeping’:

Pre-determiner
determiner
Adjective
Verbal adjective
head noun





all
the
smelly
creeping
mould



5) Nouns:


Suggesting that within a noun phrase there is a head noun, implies that it is possible to have other nouns within the phrase which are not the head noun.

For example, consider the following:


determiner
noun
head noun



the
kitchen
mould

Both ‘kitchen’ and ‘mould’ are nouns, but it is clear that the phrase is actually talking about the mould, not the kitchen. The noun ‘kitchen’ is only there to provide a location for the mould. It is therefore modifying the head noun, and as such is a noun pre-modifier.

Post-modifiers


There are two main types of post-modifiers. Jeffries (2006) defines these as the prepositional phrase and the relative clause. We are only going to consider the first of these, although it would be worth you exploring the relative clause on your own.

The Prepositional Phrase:

Prepositions “describe the relationships that exist between elements in sentences” (Thorne, 2008. pp. 19-20). These relationships include:

Place
   at, on, by, opposite
Direction
   towards, past, out of, to, through
Time
   at, before, in, on
Comparison
   as … as, like
Source
   from, out of
Purpose
   for

When you add a preposition to a noun phrase, that noun phrase then becomes a prepositional phrase instead. For example, let us again go to our mouldy old example of a noun phrase:

Noun Phrase (NP)
determiner
noun
head noun



the
kitchen
mould

If we now add a preposition, such as ‘for’ at the beginning of this noun phrase, it is now no longer a noun phrase at all – it is a prepositional phrase:


Prepositional Phrase (PP)
preposition
determiner
noun
head noun




for
the
kitchen
mould

repositional phrases can be used as post-modifiers on noun phrases. So for example, if we were to jig around our original sentence:


VP
NP
AJP



Stephen found
a treatment
beneath the bath
 
We can now add the prepositional phrase above to the end of the noun phrase to modify the head noun (‘treatment’) in terms of defining its use:

VP
NP
AJP



Stephen found
a treatment for the kitchen mould
beneath the bath

 The new noun phrase can be analysed as such:

Noun Phrase (NP)
determiner
head
noun
post-modifying
prepositional phrase




A
treatment
for the kitchen mould


In the same way, the noun phrase…


determiner
head noun


the
cupboard

…can have a preposition added to it…


Preposition
determiner
head noun



in
the
cupboard

…and then the whole can be turned as a post-modifier for another noun phrase:


Determiner
head noun
post-modifier



The
book
in the cupboard

Phrase Structure Grammar


Because of the versatility and power of the phrase syntactically, it is common nowadays to describe sentences in terms of the phrases which comprise them. Phrase structure grammar provides us with rules for sentence formation which utilise this form of analysis. The simple formula S = NP + VP is a rewrite rule which captures the generalisation that a basic sentence consists of a noun phrase plus a verb phrase. It is sufficient to express the rule which generates the sentence with:

(Stephen found) (the mould) (beneath the bath)

S = VP + NP + AJP


Bibliography:


Fabb, N. (1994). Sentence Structure. London, Routledge

Finch, G. (2005). Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, 2nd edn.. Basinstoke: Palgrave

Thorne, S. (2008). Mastering Advanced English Language. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Jeffries, L. (2006). Discovering Language: The Structure of Modern English. Basingstoke: Palgrave

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