Grammar Boot Camp Part III: Phrasing it Up

keep-calm-and-use-correct-grammar-2-resized-600Apostrophes, clauses, and phrases–oh my! Even though there are actually six types of grammatical phrases, don’t be alarmed. Getting a firm grasp on the differences between appositive, prepositional, gerund, infinitive, participial, and absolute phrases will ensure crisp, original essay writing and higher verbal scores on SAT and ACT exams. That’s right: phrases are all the rage nowadays. For good reason! Today we’ll focus on three of these phrases.

What is a phrase?

To refresh your memory, a phrase is a group of words that acts as a single part of speech.  Phrases differ from clauses in that they do not contain a subject and its specific predicate. For a refresher on clauses, check out my last blog, Clauses 101.

There are six types of common phrases. The first of these should probably sound very familiar; it’s a grammar-school favorite (no pun intended!).

A. Prepositional Phrase: This is a group of words that begins with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun called the object of the preposition. The phrase acts as another part of speech; that is, as an adjective phrase modifying a noun or pronoun or as an adverb, modifying a verb, adjective, or adverb.

  • This street leads to the city center.
  • Susan discovered the sheepish poodle cowering under the dining-room table.
  • You are too smart for your own good.
  • The magazine with the yellow cover is her favorite.

In the previous examples, the first three sentences act as adverb phrases, describing, respectively, where the street leads, where the poodle is hiding, and to what extent “you” are smart. The final sentence is an adjective phrase, because “with the yellow color” indicates what kind or type of magazine is “her favorite.” Prepositional phrases are largely useful for giving locations and showing the relationship between ideas.

Note: You have probably often heard the phrase, “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” You should certainly try to adhere to this rule as much as possible; however, frequently “fixing” such a sentence results in an even more awkward construction (as in Churchill’s point: “That is nonsense up with which I shall not put.”) What do I advise? Use your discretion. Many a distinguished academic has left prepositions lingering at the ends of sentences!

B. Appositive Phrase:  An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to another noun or pronoun to identify or give additional information about it. An appositive phrase is an appositive and any words that modify it. Here are some examples:

  • My roommate Cat is studying for a degree in microbiology.
  • George Orwell, author of 1984, often appears on high school syllabuses.
  • Please submit your application to our Admissions Office, the large brick building at the end of the street.
  • An unabashed, outlandishly dressed young woman, Ms. Peacock understandably interrupted the quiet garden party with her tasteless remarks and brazen attire.

Appositive phrases are a little bit trickier than prepositional phrases. Sometimes it is helpful to remember that appositives often fit between commas, as in the second example about George Orwell. But most importantly, remember that appositives provide additional information about the nouns they modify. See how the first sentence gives us additional information about the roommate (her name) and the third gives more detail about what the Admissions Office looks like? Think of appositive phrases as adding a second image to a noun or even renaming that noun.

C. Participial Phrase: This phrase incorporates a present participle (a verb ending in –ing) or past participle (a verb ending in –ed). It acts as an adjective. As a verbal phrase, these phrases cannot begin with nouns. Here are some examples:

  • The dog slumped to the ground, panting from exhaustion and licking his sore paws.
  • Threatened by the hungry look in his eyes, the child backed away instinctively.
  • The hot air balloon, suspended in the blue sky, drew the attention of every onlooker.
  • Having completed her homework the night before, Cassandra was well prepared for class.

The noun that the participial phrase modifies must accord with the participial phrase; that is, come right after it or before it. One of the greatest dangers of participial phrases is the problem of the “dangling” participial. Consider the following examples:

Defecating on the front lawn, John yelled at his dog.

What’s wrong here? Oh yes. Because “John” comes immediately after the participial phrase, “defecating on the front lawn,” one would assume that John is yelling at his dog while John is defecating on the front lawn. Of course that’s not what we meant! The sentence should read:

John yelled at his dog, defecating on the front lawn.

In this construction, it is the “dog” defecating, not John, as it should be.

Note: The issue of the dangling modifier is common fodder for SAT and ACT verbal sections. It is tested with obsessive frequency. Be aware! Always ask yourself: what is this phrase doing (i.e., what is it modifying)? What noun should it match? Does it match this noun? The SAT is a big fan of sentences weighty with phrases and modifiers so that you lose track of the subject. Don’t let it be so sneaky!

Next week I’ll discuss three other important phrases: absolute, infinitive, and gerund phrases. Stay tuned!

Additional Reading:

Check out the next posts in my six part “Grammar Boot Camp” series:

Check out the previous posts 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.

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