Today we return to the essential building blocks of writing: those groups of words that, when arranged in a certain way, become “phrases,” “clauses,” and “sentences.” Doubtless you have heard these terms in English class, and most likely have seen them in test-prep books for the SAT and ACT. This blog post will give you the skinny–and more–on the basics of these peculiar word groups.
What’s a phrase?
A phrase can quite literally refer to any group or collection of words. This group acts as a “conceptual unit” of sorts, most likely within a clause (which I’ll get to in just a minute). Yet it is important to remember that although phrases can have verbs and subjects in them, they never include a subject and its predicate (a fancy word for “verb”). Here are some examples of phrases:
- Lying on the floor
- A beautiful sun room near the outdoor garden
- Because of yesterday’s scheduling
- Between a rock and a hard place
Stay tuned for a future blog post which will cover the specific types of phrases: absolute, prepositional, appositive, gerund, infinitive, noun, participial.
Sentences differ from phrases in that they refer to a set of words that is “complete” in itself. This means that a sentence at the very least must have a noun and its predicate, which stand alone as a complete thought. They can consist of a single clause. Examples of sentences? Most of those within this blog post!
Clauses are collections of words that, contrary to phrases, include a subject and its predicate. There are two essential types of clauses: main or independent clauses, and subordinate or dependent clauses. Other types of clauses include relative and elliptical clauses; we will spend our time today just discussing independent and subordinate clauses.
A main or independent clause includes a noun and its attached verb and can stand alone as a sentence. It formulates a complete thought–that’s right, a sentence is also an independent clause! Some examples of independent clauses:
- Megan will take her exam.
- The beach was flat.
- Much was left to say.
There is one danger that can result from independent clauses. Ever heard of the comma splice? A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined with a comma: a huge no-no in the world of grammar. Here’s an example:
- I went to the record store early, there were still lots of people in line.
- The students eventually took the exam, it was harder than expected.
Your knowledge of comma splices is often tested on ACT and SAT exams. The methods for fixing a comma splice are the following:
- Use a coordinating conjunction, like and, but, yet, for, nor, or, and sometimes so, after the comma. “I went to the record store early, yet there were lots of people in line.”
- Use a semicolon between the two independent clauses. You can simply stick with a semicolon like the following: “The students took the exam; it was harder than expected.” Or you can also add a conjunctive adverb, a fancy word for adverbs like however, nonetheless, additionally, moreover. Our example sentence becomes this: “The students took the exam; however, it was harder than expected.” Notice that if one uses a conjunctive adverb, a comma must go after it.
- Turn the comma into a period. This is not the most recommended method of fixing a comma splice, because too many periods can make your essay sound a bit monotonous and choppy.
- Turn one of the clauses into a subordinate clause. What’s a subordinate clause? Read on!
A subordinate or dependent clause cannot stand alone as a complete thought, although it still has a subject and its predicate. These clauses have a subordinate conjunction in front of them, which makes them “dependent” upon another clause in order to complete a sentence. Here are some examples:
- Although Tanya had eaten breakfast
- Whereas some of the students were unappreciative of the teacher’s techniques
- However hard he tried
In these clauses, the words although, whereas, and however are the subordinate conjunctions. Examples of other subordinate conjunctions include: after, as long as, because, inasmuch, wherever, while, unless, etc. See how the removal of these conjunctions turn the clauses into independent clauses?
- Tanya had eaten breakfast
- Some of the students were unappreciative of the teacher’s techniques
- He tried [hard]
Hence, you can fix a comma splice by turning one of your independent clauses into a subordinate clause: by adding a subordinate conjunction.
- Although I went to the record store early, there were still lots of people in line.
- When the students eventually took the exam, it was harder than expected.
Next time I will discuss what happens when these clauses act as certain parts of speech (adverbs, adjectives, and nouns). In the interim, beware of comma splices and celebrate your new knowledge about word groups!
Check out the next posts in my six part “Grammar Boot Camp” series:
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 3 – Phrases
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 4 – Absolutes, Gerunds, Infinitives
- Grammar Boot Camp Part 5 – Commonly Confused Words
Check out the previous post in this series:
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.