Clauses vs. Phrases

This week we’re going to examine the differences between clauses and phrases. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they actually describe two different categories of word groups.



A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. Clauses are either independent or dependent.


Independent clauses, or main clauses, can be sentences on their own:


I [subject] take [verb] English classes at the English Island in Atlanta.


Dependent clauses, or subordinate clauses, cannot be sentences on their own. Although a dependent clause contains a subject and a verb, its meaning is incomplete. A dependent clause begins with a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun and implies a question or a need for additional information:


After she went to her English lesson…


What happened after she went to her English lesson?


Dependent clauses fall into one of three categories: adverb clauses, adjective clauses, and noun clauses. We’ve covered these clauses in depth in previous lessons, so we won’t go into detail here. However, each fulfills a function consistent with its namesake. In other words, an adverb clause answers the question Where?, When?, Why?, or How? Similarly, an adjective clause, or relative clause, modifies a noun or pronoun. Finally, a noun clause can act in any role in a sentence that a noun can: subject, subject complement, direct object, or object of a preposition.



A phrase is a group of words that does not have a subject-verb combination. The types of phrases include noun phrases, infinitive phrases, gerund phrases, prepositional phrases, participle phrases (past and present), modifying adverbial phrases, and appositive phrases.


A noun phrase contains a noun and its modifiers but no verb:


My best friend teaches high school English.


A noun phrase can be the subject, object, or subject complement of a sentence.


An infinitive phrase contains an infinitive, its objects, and its modifiers. Infinitives are easy to spot because of their distinctive to + verb structure.



Infinitives are the most versatile type of verbals, words made from verbs that function as other parts of speech. Infinitive phrases can function as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.


Infinitive phrase as the direct object:

She planned­ to work late.

Kevin promised to give his boss an update.


Infinitive phrase as an adjective:

Jennifer has a report to finish after dinner.

Megan had a piano solo to practice before the concert.


Infinitive phrase as an adverb:

Susan braved the winter storm to walk to the grocery store.

Angela baked her famous brownies to bring to the company picnic.


There is a lot more to infinitive phrases than what we’ve covered here. For a more in depth explanation of infinitives and infinitive phrases, we recommend that you check out our two-part infinitives lesson.


A gerund phrase is a gerund, its objects, and its modifiers. Gerunds are verbals that use the -ing forms of verbs as nouns and can function in any roles that nouns do:


Playing bingo with my girlfriend is my favorite Sunday activity.

I really enjoy playing the more complicated games.


A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition and a noun or noun phrase. Prepositional phrases can tell a place or time, give a description, or show possession:



On Friday there was a safety drill at my office.



The drill happened at five o’clock.



A man with a question called just as the drill began.



I don’t know the name or number of the caller.


A participle phrase is a shortened adjective clause containing a past or present participle plus its objects and modifiers:


The man staring out the window looks deep in thought.


“Staring out the window” tells us more about “the man.”


Completed exhausted, the defending champion conceded defeat to the challenger.


“Completed exhausted” tells us more about “the defending champion.”


Modifying adverbial phrases are abridged adverb clauses. A modifying phrase lets you say the same thing as an adverb clause but with fewer words.


Adverb Clause:

While I was driving to work, I got stuck in traffic.


Modifying Phrase:

While driving to work, I got stuck in traffic.


Finally, an appositive phrase is a noun or noun phrase that “renames” another noun:


My roommate loves to watch the show the Voice.


“The voice” renames “the show”


Atlanta, one of the largest cities in the American South, is home to both Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the Centers for Disease Control.


The appositive phrase “one…South” renames “Atlanta.”