KS3 grammar: phrases


Words combine to make phrases, and phrases are one of the basic patterns out of which we build sentences.

  • A phrase is a group of words which acts as a single unit in meaning and in grammar, and is not built round a verb.

Phrases can have many different functions in a sentence. They are used as subjects, objects, complements, modifiers, or adverbials.

Understanding phrasal patterns helps us to discuss and explain the effects in our own and others’ writing. In the sentence:

The strange green creatures with bobbing heads spoke.

  • the phrase the strange green creatures with bobbing heads acts as the subject of the verb spoke. The phrase is a single unit both in its meaning and in its grammar.
  • the fragment the strange green is not a phrase, because it has no separate meaning and no grammatical function.

Expansion and heads

A phrase is an expansion of one of the words inside it, which is called its head. For example, creatures is the head of the strange green creatures with bobbing heads.

The words that expand the head of a phrase are its ‘expanders’, which are generally the head’s modifiers; for example, green modifies creatures. All this means is that green makes the meaning of creatures more precise – instead of meaning simply ‘creatures’, it means ‘green creatures’. (For an expander which is not a modifier see Prepositional phrases.)

There is a useful notation for showing heads and their expanders, in which the head is written higher than the modifiers, showing that it is the ‘boss’ and the expanders are its assistants, brought in to make the message more precise.


How long is a phrase?

A phrase can be two words long:

big dog

Sometimes you will even see a single word referred to as a phrase. Or a phrase can be much longer:

that lovely old pub by the bridge over the river

Phrases within phrases

Longer phrases are like Russian dolls – they contain a number of shorter phrases:


The phrases whose heads are by and over are prepositional phrases and will be explained below.

The other notation shows the same structure in a different way:


These diagrams are both useful in revealing the way in which the larger phrase is built out of smaller parts, each of which helps to expand a word which is before or after it:


the river

over the river

the bridge over the river

by the bridge over the river

that lovely old pub by the bridge over the river

Noun phrases

A noun phrase has a noun as its head. The modifiers may be:


determiners He carried the bags
possessives She brought Mary’s bags
adjectives The heavy bags are downstairs
prepositional phrases The bridge over the river
clauses The pub we went to


A noun phrase does the work of a noun in a sentence.

It can be:


the subject: The red balloon soared upwards.
the object: I read that book about dinosaurs
the complement: She wants to be a doctor.
possessive my best friend’s father
the object of a preposition looked over the fence


Most sentences contain several noun phrases, which often determine the overall length and complexity of the whole sentence. This is why it’s important to be able to focus attention on the noun phrases in a text, in order to discuss their structures and how they are used.

Adjectival and adverbial phrases

  • Adjectival phrases have an adjective as their head.
    • e.g. good at …, very tall
  • Adverbial phrases have an adverb as their head.
    • e.g. very quickly

Adjectival phrases

Adjectival phrases either

  • expand noun phrases or
  • complete the verb (act as the complement)

For example:


They are really enthusiastic. The adjective enthusiastic is modified by the adverb really to form the adjectival phrase. It is the complement of the verb are.
They are keen on football. The adjective keen combines with the prepositional phrase, on football. The head of the phrase is keen, and the phrase describes the keen-ness, so it’s an adjectival phrase.
the unusually tall boy The adjective tall is modified by the adverb unusually to form the adjectival phrase. It expands the noun phrase the boy.


At KS3 one main area of development with adjective phrases is likely to concern the use of prepositions and linking words (e.g. different from, conscious of, accustomed to, sufficiently big to).

Adverbial phrases

Like single adverbs, they modify verbs, adjectives or adverbs. For example:

He opened it extremely easily. extremely easily modifies opened
I’ll do it quite soon. quite soon modifies do
I ran so fast. so fast modifies ran
He was quite unexpectedly kind. quite unexpectedly modifies kind
He came very surprisingly quickly. very surprisingly modifies quickly


Prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases have a preposition as their head:

at lunchtime

behind the fridge

for an interview

from eating too much

in the drawer

Heads and objects in prepositional phrases

The preposition is usually followed by a noun or noun phrase – lunchtime, the fridge, etc. This is called its object, because the preposition + object combination is rather like a verb + object (e.g. forgot lunchtime, opened the fridge).

Why don’t we treat the preposition as a modifier of the object? Because the preposition doesn’t modify the object’s meaning – for example, behind doesn’t turn the fridge into a particular kind of fridge.

In fact, the preposition sets up the meaning for the whole phrase, and the object makes it more precise. For example, behind picks out some place, and defines it in relation to something else – the fridge, Mary, the Houses of Parliament, depending on what the object may be. This is why we treat the preposition as the phrase’s head.

Adjectival and adverbial uses of prepostional phrases

Think about the functions of the two preposition phrases in this sentence:

The boy from the shop is waiting at the corner

  • from the shop :The head of this prepositional phrase is the preposition from. The function of the phrase is adjectival – it does the work of an adjective by describing the noun boy. It modifies the noun, answering the question: which boy?
  • at the corner :The head of this prepositional phrase is the preposition at. The function of the phrase is adverbial – it does the work of an adverb by modifying the verb waiting. It answers the question: where is he waiting?

Adverbial prepositional phrases, like adverbs, modify verbs, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions, and answer the same range of questions as adverbs:

How? in a hurry, with enthusiasm

When? after the party, at midnight

Where? at the station, near London

Why? for my sake, because of the cold

Adjectival prepositional phrases, like adjectives, modify nouns: for example, they tell you which boy:

The boy in a hurry is waiting over there.

The boy at the station told me.

The boy from London lives here.

The boy with red hair is called Ginger.

The boy behind the shed is smoking.

As some of these examples show, the same phrase can be adjectival or adverbial, depending on its function in the sentence


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