What’s the difference between a phrase and a sentence? And what about clauses? (Part 1)

Well, first we have to straighten out which is which. A phrase is the least complicated unit, followed by clauses and sentences. Let’s take a look:


A phrase is any set of words that seem to go together. English speakers associate words in small groups according to meaning. For example, in the sentence

The red balloon drifted lazily into a bright, blue sky.

there are several phrases. The word balloon is the subject, but the subject phrase is longer: the red balloon. Why is this a phrase? The words the and red are both modifying balloon; they belong to it. To a native speaker, it would feel natural to break the red balloon into one chunk of words, which we then call a phrase.

The definition is really as simple as this: a group of words that go together make a phrase. The words do not need to express a complete idea and have no need to include both a subject and a verb.

There are several more phrases in the example sentence above. There is a verb phrase, “drifted lazily”, and a prepositional phrase, “into a bright blue sky”. Try your hand at identifying phrases in the examples below! Check your guesses at the end.

  1. Diligent students often study.
  2. Because it is raining, the weather has become so sultry.
  3. The playful child truly loved running fast in the wide outdoors.

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  1. [Diligent students (noun phrase)][often study (verb phrase)]
  2. [Because it is raining (introductory phrase)][the weather (noun phrase)][has become so sultry (verb phrase)]
  3. [The playful child (noun phrase)][truly loved [running fast (object phrase)](verb phrase)][in the wide outdoors (prepositional phrase)]

Yes, #3 has nested phrases! The object phrase is part of the verb phrase, but it can also be recognized as a phrase on its own. The term “phrase” is very flexible.

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