Phrases vs. Clauses – Difference and Usage

Clauses and phrases are standard components of sentence writing. When the two are combined with other elements of speech, or other sentences parts, clauses and phrases can help to establish a complex structure enabling your verbiage to establish or convey meaning.

Knowing  and understanding the differences between the two is a necessary part of writing sentences that are not only grammatically correct, but are also properly constructed and easy to understand.

A phrase is a group of two or more words. A phrase does not have a subject and a verb combination, and there is no predicate.

There are six main types of phrases:

  • Gerund phrases
  • Infinitive phrases
  • Noun phrases
  • Participle phrases
  • Prepositional phrases and,
  • Verb phrases

Note: A gerund phrase is a verb from ending in -ing. As a phrase, it consists of the gerund, and any modifiers and compliments. Gerund phrases always act as nouns. They can also function as subjects, direct / indirect objects, predicate nominatives or objects of a preposition.

A clause is a grouping of words that don’t necessarily form a complete sentence in its current state, but with the addition of proper punctuation, it could. There are two classifications of clauses – independent and dependent.

There are four main types of clauses:

  • Adverbial clauses
  • Defining and non-defining clauses. These are sometimes call adjective or relative clauses.
  • Independent or dependent clauses. And,
  • Noun clauses

Phrases vs. Clauses

Introductory clauses are considered to be dependent clauses that offer additional information or ‘set the tone’ for the main clause or part of the sentence – the independent clause. For example:

If you want to be good at something, you need to practice as often as possible.

Introductory dependent clause -> main clause

Because he kept whining about how hungry he was, we made him a sandwich before bed.

Introductory dependent clause -> main clause

Introductory clauses always begin with adverbs such as although, after, because, as, before, since, if, until, when, etc.

Introductory phrases, on the other hand, are used to set the tone for the action of the sentence. That being said, they are not whole sentences. Phrases lack a subject and a verb that are distinct from the subject and the verb in the main clause of the sentence. Typical introductory phrases include appositive phrases, participial phrases, prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases, and absolute phrases.

To stay fit for the contest, I must train every day.

Introductory infinitive phrase -> main clause

Whining annoyingly, he got me to make him a sandwich before bed.

Introductory infinitive phrase -> main clause

A popular and well-liked teacher, Mrs. Smith was the clear choice for Teacher of the Year.

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Introductory infinitive phrase -> main clause

Introductory words such as still, however, furthermore, and meanwhile all establish continuity from one sentence to the next sentence.

The judges reviewed the scores. Meanwhile, the dancers were backstage preparing for the next part of the competition.

There are situations that would warrant a comma in an introduction, but not every single time. A comma should always be used in the following:

  • Following an introductory clause
  • Following a long introductory prepositional phrase or multiple introductory prepositional phrases.
  • Following introductory verbal phrases, appositive phrases and even absolute phrases.
  • Whenever a distinct pause occurs. And,
  • Whenever a comma is needed in order to prevent confusion.

Just as there are situations when a comma should be used, there are also times when it is not in good practice to use a comma. Such as:

  • Following a short prepositional phrase – such as a single phrase of five or fewer words.
  • Following a restrictive appositive phrase.
  • Whenever it is necessary to separate the subject from the predicate.

What is a phrase?

A phrase is a collection of two or more words that lack a subject and verb combination and do not form a predicate. A phrase might contain a noun or a verb, but it does not have a subject or a predicate. Generally speaking, a phrase will offer some sort of further information or insight about the sentences you are writing.

A phrase will never stand on its own as a complete sentence. That being said, a phrase can sit inside clauses that are either whole sentences or are dependent on the remainder of the sentence. Whenever a phrase is found inside a clause, it acts like an element of speech. Here is an example:

The wedding reception was held at the banquet hall. (“At the banquet hall” is a prepositional phrase. It does not have a predicate or a subject, and it cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence.)

Phrases come in many different constructions and forms. That said, they cannot stand on their own as a complete sentence. The six main types of phrases are:

  • Gerund phrases
  • Infinitive phrases
  • Noun phrases
  • Participle phrases
  • Prepositional phrases and,
  • Verb phrases

What is a clause?

A clause is a collection of words that have the potential to be a sentence but aren’t exactly a complete sentence all on its own. Every clause contains a subject and also a predicate – which will always have verb. A predicate indicates something about what the verb is doing. There are clauses that are capable of acting as stand alone sentences, but there are others that are not able to do so. Here is an example of a clause:

He sang (“He” is the subject, “Sang” is both the verb and the predicate. Despite the fact that the clause is only two words in length, it serves are an independent clause because it can stand by itself as a sentence.)

There are two main categories of clauses – Independent and dependant. The four main types of clauses that are most often used when creating sentences are:

  • Adverbial clauses
  • Defining and non-defining clauses. These are sometimes call adjective or relative clauses.
  • Independent or dependent clauses. And,
  • Noun clauses

Independent clauses can easily be turned into complete or whole sentences simply by adding the appropriate punctuation marks.

How To Tell Them Apart

In order to refine your writing, and to improve your knowledge, it is beneficial to understand the primary differences between phrases and clauses. If you find yourself struggling to figure out if a collection of words might be a clause or a phrase, you should separate the words into parts of speech. If you find that there is a subject and also a verb with a predicate, it is a clause.

If a noun is present, but not a verb or a verb is present, but not a noun and there is no predicate, it is a phrase. Bare in mind that there are sometimes phrases built into clauses.

Phrases and clauses are necessary parts of speech. Understanding the differences between the two will make you a better writing. Here are a few worksheets that you can use to help practice and expand your knowledge.

  1. Clauses Worksheet
  2. Clauses and Phrases Worksheet
  3. Subjects, Predicates and Objects Worksheet
  4. Phrases or Clauses Quiz
  5. Phrases and Clauses Practice Worksheet