What is the difference between a phrase and a clause?

Phrases are groups of words that are part of a sentence, but do not contain both a subject and a predicate. Phrases do not express complete thoughts, but do combine words to form an element of a sentence. A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. A clause can be dependent or independent. A dependent clause is part of a sentence. An independent clause can be part of a sentence or it can stand alone as a complete sentence. Independent clauses can be joined to form a sentence. The key difference between phrases and clauses that clauses contain subject and predicates, and while a phrase may contain the subject, it never contains a complete predicate. However, a phrase may include a partial predicate. Clauses are generally complete thoughts, while phrases do not express complete thoughts, but contribute towards one.


Phrases Within Clauses

Clauses are made of up of words and phrases. A clause may contain a phrase, but a phrase may never contain a clause. An entire clause would require both a subject and a predicate, which a phrase never contains.

Types of Clauses

  • A clause is a part of a sentence that contains both a subject and a predicate.
    Ex. The bus stopped to pick me up.

In this sentence the clause "bus stopped to pick" contains the subject (bus) and the predicate (stopped).

  • A clause that cannot stand alone is a dependent or subordinate clause.
    Ex.  sauce spread on the chicken
  • A clause that can stand alone is an independent or main clause.
    Ex.  the ball bounced
  • With proper punctuation this clause could stand independently as a sentence.
    Ex.  The ball bounced.
  • Independent clauses may be joined using coordinating conjunctions; and, or, for, nor, yet, but, so.
    Ex.  The ball bounced, and the boy ran to pick it up.
  • An essential, or restrictive clause, is one that cannot be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning of the


    Ex.  Swimmers who practice everyday win at the competition.
  • Nonessential, or nonrestrictive clauses may be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
    Ex.   Dedicated swimmers, the ones that practice everyday, are winners at the competition.
  • A time clause is a type of adverb clause and is introduced with conjunctions such as; when, after, before, as soon as,

whenever, and while. A time clause is dependent.

    Ex.  as soon as we get to the theater
  • An adjective clause takes the place of an adjective and follows the noun that it modifies. An adjective clause comes after

what it modifies. relative pronouns such as who, what, or that. An adjective clause is dependent.

    Ex.  after she rode the bicycle
  • A noun clause takes the place of a noun and answers the question "who" or "what". Noun clauses are introduced with words

as such; that if, who, what, where, when, why, whom, how, whenever, wherever, whoever, or whatever. A noun clause is dependent.

    Ex.  what I decided to bring
  • An adverb clause takes place of an adverb and answers questions such as "when", "where", "why", or "under what

circumstances. An adverb clause is introduced with subordinate conjunctions such as; when, where, like, such as, since, or after. An adverb clause is dependent.

    Ex.  where the cars were parking 


Types of Phrases

There are many types of phrases which dictate elements of their use and punctuation.

  • Noun Phrase- There are several types of noun phrases: appositive, gerund, and infinitive phrases. A noun phrase includes a noun and any words that are being used to modify that noun. For example "fat, lazy, brown cat on the chair" is a phrase which contains characteristics and location of the noun, but is not a complete thought. A noun phrase can include other phrases, like the prepositional phrase describing the cat's location.
  Ex. The fat, lazy, brown cat on the chair sat quietly.
  • Gerund- A gerund is a verb ending in -ing, and will function as a noun in a gerund phrase. A gerund phrase includes the gerund and any related words or modifiers. Gerund phrases are sometimes confused with participial phrases, but gerund phrases act as nouns, making them noun phrases, whereas participial phrases function as adjectives or modifiers. For example "The cat's loud meowing" is a gerund phrase, containing the gerund "meowing" and the words that relate to the meowing. While "meowing" is typically a verb, in this phrase it is functioning as a gerund. Other phrases, such as prepositional phrases, can be apart of a gerund phrase.
  Ex. The cat's loud meowing woke us up.
  • Infinitive- An infinitive phrase contains an infinitive (to + verb, such as "to walk" or "to sleep") and all of its related words. An infinitive phrase is usually a noun phrase, but may also function as an adjective or an adverb. For example "to meow loudly" includes an infinitive, a modifier, and an incomplete thought, forming an infinitive phrase.
  Ex. The cat was encouraged not to meow loudly.
  • Appositive- An appositive is a single word phrase that renames a noun without actually modifying it. The noun being renamed immediately precedes the appositive phrase, for example "My cat, Lily" renames the cat Lily.
  Ex. My cat, Lily, is lazy.
  • Prepositional- A prepositional phrases is a phrase that starts with a preposition and includes the entire preposition. A prepositional phrase is often contained within other phrases. For example "on the table" and "under the bed" are prepositional phrases.
  Ex. I left my purse on the table or under the bed. 
  • Participial- A participial phrase contains a past or present participle and always functions as an adjective. Participles are verbs ending in -ed or -ing that function as adjectives. For example "shining beautifully" or "shined beautifully" can both describe the ocean, and act as participial phrases when they modify the noun, ocean.
  Ex. The ocean, shining beautifully, was far in the distance.
  • Verb- A verb phrase includes a verb and all words related to the verb. For example "Run slowly" is a verb phrase.
  'Ex. She advised us to run slowly.
  • Absolute- Absolute phrases modify an entire sentence, not just a noun or section of the sentence. They are almost an entire clause, containing partial predicates, but do not contain complete thoughts or finite verbs. For example "The cat, sore and tired but warm beneath the blankets" contains no finite verb, but is long enough that it will likely modify most of the sentence containing it.
  Ex. The cat, sore and tired but warm beneath the blankets, slept quietly. 


Punctuating Clauses

  • A comma must be placed before the coordinating conjunction when joining two independent clauses.
    Ex.  The dog came inside, but continued to whine.
  • A semicolon must be placed between two independent clauses when they are joined without using a coordinating conjunction.
    Ex.  The car ran over the dog; we took him to the veterinarian's clinic.
  • A comma must be used to separate two or more clauses within a sentence.
    Ex.  We ate dinner, cleaned the dishes, played a game, and went to bed.
  • A comma must be used to before clauses that begin with who, which, that, whose or whom.
    Ex.  Rebecca, who lives on Sunnybrook Farm, is in the sixth grade.
  • A comma must be used to offset a nonessential clause.
    Ex.  Dedicated swimmers, who practice everyday, are the ones that win at the competition.
  • A comma must not be used with an essential clause.
    Ex.  Swimmers who practice everyday will win at the competition.
  • A comma must be used before an adverb when it is used to join clauses.
    Ex.  She drove her car onto Interstate 75, where many accidents have occurred.
  • A comma must be used after an introductory clause.
    Ex.  After suffering under economy strain for many years, the United States made major policy changes.
  • A comma must be used after and introductory phrase.
    Ex.  After a difficult round of chemotherapy, the doctor declared his patient to be cancer free.
  • A comma must be used between contrasting or alternating phrases.
    Ex.  The girl used her best manners, however she was not happy.
    Ex.  A small, but well-kept house, was enough for him.
  • A comma must be used to separate phrases within a sentence.
    Ex.  The children had a blue truck, two red balls, and some green blocks.

  • If a comma is already in use in a sentence, a semicolon must be used to separate phrases within the sentence.
    Ex.  She owns a house in Atlanta, Georgia; and apartment in Houston, Texas; and a condominium in New York City, New York.
  • A comma must be used before and adverb that separates phrases.
    Ex.  He found that it was lonely at the top, as the old saying goes.

Punctuating Phrases

Some types of phrases have rules that users must adhere to when punctuating them, but not all phrases have special rules. For example, the appositive is governed by consistent punctuation rules while the gerund has no special rules

  • Prepositional- When a propositional phrase begins a sentence, it usually requires a comma after it. It is usually frowned upon to end a sentence with a prepositional phrase, but this rule has been challenged in the past.
  • Participial- Participial phrases are usually set off by commas, or immediately followed by a comma when they begin a sentence. The participial phrase may come before or after the noun it is modifying in a sentence.
  • Infinitive- If an infinitive begins a sentence, there must be a comma after it. An infinitive's punctuation is usually determined by where it is in the sentence and if it is functioning as an adverb, noun, or adjective.
  • Appositive- Appositives are generally preceded and followed by a comma, to distinguish it as renaming the noun preceding it.
  • Absolute- Absolute phrases may be placed almost anywhere in the sentence because they generally modify the entire sentence.

Works Cited

Phrases and Clauses at English Forums

Sentence Elements at Towson University

Clauses and Phrases at Carson University

English---Language Blog Resource

Learning Grammar

Types of Phrases at Vappingo

Types of Phrases at Learning Nerd

Types of Phrases at the Factory School Handbook

The Garden of Phrases

Clauses of Time Exercises, Grammar

University of Pittsburgh Noun Clauses

University of Ottowa Using Clauses as Nouns, Adjectives, and Adverbs

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 5th Edition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1999. 51 - 64. Print.

Oliu, Walter, Charles Brusaw, and Gerald Alred. Writing That Works. Tenth Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010. 103-674. Print.

Wyrick, Jean. Steps to Writing Well With Additional Readings. Sixth Edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. 36-511. Print.

Press, Associated. The Associated Press Stylebook And Briefing On Media Law 2011. 46. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. 100-102. Print.