Last week I discussed the first three of six important phrases in English grammar: participial, appositive, and prepositional phrases. (Need a refresher? Check out “Phrasing it Up”). Today we’ll be looking at three others: absolutes, gerunds, and infinitives. Having a solid knowledge of these six phrases will benefit you on upcoming college entrance exams (especially the ACT or SAT), which is largely the point of my current blog series, Grammar Boot Camp. Additionally, having on hand a variety of phrases will add spice to the sentence structures of your academic essays–always a plus!
What is a phrase?
In case you’ve grown a bit rusty on your grammar skills since last week, a phrase is a special group of words that acts as a part of speech. Unlike clauses, phrases do not include a subject (noun) and its predicate (verb). (For a reminder of clauses, check out this recent blog post.) Prepositional phrases, for example, can act as adjectives or adverbs, as in the following sentence:
- Marcia walked down the lane at a rapid pace.
In this sentence, the prepositional phrases down the lane and at a rapid pace provide information as to where Marcia walks and how she walks, respectively.
Appositive phrases rename nouns, providing additional information to a subject, as in this sentence.
- The course syllabus, a terrifying white packet twenty pages long, intimidated nearly every student.
Here, an appositive phrase gives more information about the syllabus: it is “a terrifying white packet twenty pages long.” Lastly, participial phrases are verbal phrases acting as adjectives. These consist of participles, verbs ending in -ing especially, which must correspond with the subject they are modifying.
- Rising from a bank of cloud, the harvest moon sat full and white in the sky.
Here, rising from a bank of cloud modifies harvest moon.
D. Absolute Phrases
Also called a nominative absolute, an absolute phrase is a group of words consisting of a noun or pronoun and a participle, as well as any related modifiers. Absolute phrases modify the entire sentence, adding extra information. They are essentially “parenthetical,” set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma or pair of commas. These always contain a subject but never a corresponding verb (that would make it a clause!).
- Eyes darting about the room, the criminal crouched defensively in the corner as the interrogators approached.
- The student emerged triumphant from the competition, his reputation as school geographer secured for at least a few more terms.
Notice how, in the first example, eyes darting about the room provides additional information about the entire sentence, namely, about the criminal crouching defensively in the corner. The subject of the absolute phrase here is “eyes,” with darting about the room as its modifier.
When the participle of an absolute phrase is a form of to be, such as being or having been, the participle is often left out but understood.
- The season [being] over, they were mobbed by fans in Times Square.
- [Having been] Stars all their teenage lives, the cast of Harry Potter seemed used to the attention.
Note: It is not unusual for the information supplied in the absolute phrase to be the most important element in the sentence. This is why absolute phrases are so essential to your understanding of English grammar. You probably use them more frequently than you know!
E. Gerunds and Gerund Phrases
Gerunds are a verb form ending in -ing used as nouns: eating, incorporating, speaking, packing, riding, vacuuming, sitting, etc. A gerund phrase includes a gerund as well as any modifiers.
- She adores taking walks.
- My grandmother detests driving at night.
- Brushing your teeth is very important to protect against heart disease.
Notice how, in all of these sentences, the gerund phrases act as nouns. You can always test if a phrase is a gerund if replacing it with a single noun (“this,” or “that,” for example) is successful: she adores this. My grandmother detests that. This is very important. It works! That’s all there is to it.
F. Infinitives and Infinitive Phrases
Easier (almost) than gerunds, infinitives are a verb form consisting of the preposition “to” and a verb: to volunteer, to exercise, to merge, to sacrifice, to call. Infinitive phrases consist of an infinitive and its modifiers. These can act as nouns, direct objects, adjectives, and adverbs.
- I just want to sleep until noon everyday.
- To write is to live.
- Daniel really needs to call his grandmother, before she misunderstands the situation.
- They decided to move to Nashville for financial reasons.
In the first example, the infinitive phrase to sleep until noon everyday acts as a direct object. In the second sentence, two infinitive phrases act as subject (to write) and adjective (to live). The final two examples both use infinitive phrases as adjectives.
That’s it for phrases! Next week I’ll be discussing commonly confused words, so, as always, stay tuned.
Check out the previous posts in my six part “Grammar Boot Camp” series:
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 3 – Phrases
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 2 – Clauses
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 1 – Apostrophes
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she has completed a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture (“Shakespeare’s Written World: Letters in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear”). Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford, and will be attending Boston University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing as a fiction writer next fall.