Clause vs Phrase

The grammatical terms clause and phrase are often confused by English speakers. This lesson filled with clauses and phrases will help you understand the difference.

Clause

A clause is a group of words including a subject and a predicate. The subject is the person or thing performing the action of the verb in the predicate, while the predicate is that verb plus, optionally, additional information such as the object of the verb or an adjective describing the subject.

Birds fly.

He looks happy.

We love pancakes!

I might be crazy.

The above examples are all independent clauses, because they are stand-alone sentences. A sentence can have more than one independent clause – shown here in italics.

Birds fly and fish swim.

He looks happy but you seem sad.

A clause that depends on another clause to complete its meaning is called a dependent clause or subordinate clause. Dependent clauses cannot stand alone; their meaning is dependent upon  an accompanying independent clause. In these examples, the dependent clauses are in italics. As you can see, if you remove the non-italicized words, the sentence is incomplete.

I don’t know how birds fly.

Tell me if he looks happy.

We’re going to IHOP because we love pancakes!

He thinks (that) I might be crazy.

In English, unlike French and Spanish, the conjunction "that" is optional, which can make it more difficult to recognize dependent clauses.

 
Phrase

A phrase is any group of words that form a unit of meaning within a sentence. There are different types of phrases depending on what part of speech the most important word – called the headword – belongs to.

Noun phrases include a noun plus a determiner and/or an adjective:

the house

any big store

green trees

some yellow cars

Prepositional phrases consist of a preposition plus the object of that preposition.

inside the store

at home

behind closed doors

on top of a mountain

Adjectival phrases are made up of an adjective plus an adverb and/or a prepositional phrase.

slightly dizzy

perfectly normal

covered in dust

very happy about it

The Bottom Line

Both clauses and phrases are groups of words, but clauses must include at minimum a subject and verb. If they are independent clauses, they are stand-alone sentences. Phrases have neither a subject nor a predicate, though they might function as either one. Phrases are never stand-alone sentences.

The big red house is on Maple Street.

The above sentence is an independent clause. The big red house is a noun phrase which serves as the subject of the clause, and on Maple Street is a prepositional phrase which, combined with the verb is, forms the predicate of the clause.

It’s good that you are so happy about it.

It’s good is an independent clause and that you are so happy about it is a dependent clause. So happy about it is an adjectival phrase which contains the prepositional phrase about it.

Note that both clause and phrase have other meanings outside of linguistics which are not covered here.

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