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Grammar & Research
Clauses and Phrases
Wed Sep 28, 2016 4:08 pm
In English, every complete thought has at least one subject and one verb. Simple sentences are thus broken up into two main parts: the subject, which is everything before the verb, and the predicate, which is the verb and everything after it. This subject-predicate unit is called a
, and clauses come in two varieties: independent and dependent.
can stand alone as complete sentences, and all simple sentences are independent clauses.
: "Cats meow."
cannot stand on their own as complete sentences and rely on other clauses to give them context.
: "Even though some people say so."
Clauses are made up of
, or groupings of words that act as a basic part of speech. Phrases are very flexible units: they can be made up of a single word, and simpler phrases often nest within more complex phrases.
Phrases can act as any part of speech except articles, with the most common types being noun, verb, adjective, adverbial, and prepositional phrases.
act as nouns in a clause and usually contain a noun.
contain at least one verb and are all about the action or state of being in a clause. Verb phrases often contain helper, or auxiliary, verbs as tense markers (like "had").
act like adjectives. They modify nouns and pronouns, and the easiest way to distinguish them from adverbial phrases is to figure out the part of speech the phrase is modifying.
act like adverbs and so modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbials. Adverbial phrases also include subordinating conjunctions, like "as though" and "every time".
are often the easiest to identify because they always start with a preposition. Prepositional phrases often act as adjective phrases, though some act as adverbials depending on the context.
So how do we apply this knowledge?
Clauses can be quite complex depending on how complex the phrases within them are, so if you're trying to figure out what is going on in a complex sentence, it's a good idea to identify the major phrases in the sentence.
: "Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." - from
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"Its vanished trees"
"had once pandered"
"must have held"
"the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house"
"of all human dreams"
"for a transitory enchanted moment"
"of this continent"
"he neither understood nor desired"
"commensurate to his capacity for wonder"
"to the last and greatest"
"in the presence"
"into an aesthetic contemplation"
"face to face"
"for the last time in history"
You may have noticed that I grouped prepositional and adjective phrases together, with a few prepositional phrases listed under the adverbials. Since prepositional phrases generally act like adjective phrases, I find it simpler to group adjective and prepositional phrases together.
A lot of these phrases can be split even further if you really want to analyze the sentence's structure. Alternatively, you can regroup the phrases into clauses and play around with the arrangement to see how placement affects mood and meaning, as well as the effects of any omissions or additions.
In the case of the above passage, there are only two independent clauses: "trees had once pandered" and "man must have held his breath". Everything else in the sentence thus modifies one of these clauses, or else is a modifier of a modifier (of a modifier, and so on).
Being aware of clauses and phrases is particularly useful for when you edit your own writing. If you're having trouble identifying what types of phrases you have or which phrase is modifying or being modified by what, that's an indication that the sentence is confusing, most likely due to a lack of focus. Breaking your sentence down into its basic components helps with detecting redundancies, condensing verbose phrasings, and hashing out the logical flow of events.
So break your sentences up into phrases. Identify your main clauses. Figure out what is modifying what, and then add, subtract, simplify, or split as needed to make your ideas read clearly.
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