In everyday speech an expression, or phrase, may refer to any group of words, or one word. In linguistics analysis, a phrase is a group of words or a single word that forms a constituent—and by which it functions as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. In grammatical hierarchy the phrase is lower than the clause.
Heads and dependents
Most phrases present a key word that identifies the type and linguistic features of the phrase; it is known as the head-word, or the head, and it gives its syntactic name as the category of the phrase. The head of a phrase is distinguished from its dependents—the non-head words—as being the category-word that characterises the primary grammatical role of the phrase.
In the following phrases the head-word, or head, is bolded:
The above five examples are the most common of phrase types; but, by the logic of 'heads' and 'dependents', others can be routinely produced. For instance, the 'subordinator' phrase:
- before that happened — Subordinator phrase (SP); the head is a subordinate conjunction—it subordinates the independent clause
By linguistic analysis this is a group of words that qualifies as a phrase, and the head-word gives its syntactic name, "subordinator", to the grammatical category of the entire phrase. But this phrase, "before that happened", is more commonly classified in other grammars as a subordinate clause (or dependent clause); and it is labelled not as a phrase, but as a clause, among these grammars, including traditional English.
Many theories of syntax and grammar illustrate sentence structure using phrase 'trees', which provide schematics of how the words in a sentence are grouped and relate to each other. Trees show the words, phrases, and, at times, clauses that make up sentences. Any word combination that corresponds to a complete subtree can be seen as a phrase.
There are two established and competing principles for constructing trees; they produce 'constituency' and 'dependency' trees and both are illustrated here using an example sentence. The constituency-based tree is on the left and the dependency-based tree is on the right:
The tree on the left is of the constituency-based, phrase structure grammar, and the tree on the right is of the dependency grammar. The node labels in the two trees mark the syntactic category of the different constituents, or word elements, of the sentence.
In the constituency tree each phrase is marked by a phrasal node (NP, PP, VP); and there are eight phrases identified by phrase structure analysis in the example sentence. On the other hand, the dependency tree identifies a phrase by any node that exerts dependency upon, or dominates, another node. And, using dependency analysis, there are six phrases in the sentence.
The trees and phrase-counts demonstrate that different theories of syntax differ in the word combinations they qualify as a phrase. Here the constituency tree identifies three phrases that the dependency tree does not, namely: house at the end of the street, end of the street, and the end. More analysis, including about the plausibilities of both grammars, can be made empirically by applying constituency tests.
Confusion: phrases in theories of syntax
The common use of the term "phrase" is different from that employed by some phrase structure theories of syntax. The everyday understanding of the phrase is that it consists of two or more words, whereas depending on the theory of syntax that one employs, individual words may or may not qualify as phrases. The trees in the previous section, for instance, do not view individual words as phrases. Theories of syntax that employ X-bar theory, in contrast, will acknowledge many individual words as phrases. This practice is due to the fact that sentence structure is analyzed in terms of a universal schema, the X-bar schema, which sees each head as projecting at least three levels of structure: a minimal level, an intermediate level, and a maximal level. Thus an individual noun, such as Susan in Susan laughed, will project up to an intermediate level and a maximal level, which means that Susan qualifies as a phrase. This concept of the phrase is a source of confusion for students of syntax.
Many other theories of syntax do not employ the X-bar schema and are therefore less likely to encounter this confusion. For instance, dependency grammars do not acknowledge phrase structure in the manner associated with phrase structure grammars and therefore do not acknowledge individual words as phrases, a fact that is evident in the dependency grammar trees above and below.
The verb phrase (VP) as a source of controversy
Most if not all theories of syntax acknowledge verb phrases (VPs), but they can diverge greatly in the types of verb phrases that they posit. Phrase structure grammars acknowledge both finite verb phrases and non-finite verb phrases as constituents. Dependency grammars, in contrast, acknowledge just non-finite verb phrases as constituents. The distinction is illustrated with the following examples:
- The Republicans may nominate Newt. - Finite VP in bold
- The Republicans may nominate Newt. - Non-finite VP in bold
The syntax trees of this sentence are next:
The constituency tree on the left shows the finite verb string may nominate Newt as a phrase (= constituent); it corresponds to VP1. In contrast, this same string is not shown as a phrase in the dependency tree on the right. Observe that both trees, however, take the non-finite VP string nominate Newt to be a phrase, since in both trees nominate Newt corresponds to a complete subtree.
Since there is disagreement concerning the status of finite VPs (whether they are constituents or not), empirical considerations are needed. Grammarians can (again) employ constituency tests to shed light on the controversy. Constituency tests are diagnostics for identifying the constituents of sentences and they are thus essential for identifying phrases. The results of most constituency tests do not support the existence of a finite VP constituent.
- Kroeger 2005:37
- For a good introduction and discussion of phrases and the tree structures that represent phrases, see Sobin (2011:29ff.).
- Finch (2000:112) sees a phrase consisting of two or more words; individual words do not count as phrases.
- Concerning the inability of most constituency tests to identify finite VP as a constituent, see Miller (2011:54f.) and Osborne (2011:323f.).
- Finch, G. 2000. Linguistic terms and concepts. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Kroeger, Paul 2005. Analyzing grammar: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.
- Miller, J. 2011. A critical introduction to syntax. London: continuum.
- Osborne, Timothy, Michael Putnam, and Thomas Gross 2011. Bare phrase structure, label-less structures, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? The Linguistic Review 28: 315-364.
- Sobin, N. 2011. Syntactic analysis: The basics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
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