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So, you have been given the assignment to dissect a sentence. You stare at the classroom board, not sure what to do next. The teacher continues to write sentences on the board, saying words like 'phrase,' 'clause,' 'gerund,' and 'participle.' Your eyes grow wide, and you feel sick. What does all this mean? Isn't a sentence just a sentence? Why is this important to know? How can you do this assignment when you have no idea what is being asked of you?
Have you ever experienced this scenario? Chances are that you have, or you would probably not be asking these very questions. All writers, even the most experienced, have wondered many of these same things. Why is it important to know sentence structure when writing a paper?
In this lesson, we will answer this very question. To be a good writer, you should be comfortable with writing and analyzing sentences. In addition, we will examine the beginning of a sentence, the phrase, and look at some of the different phrases a sentence may contain.
What Is a Phrase?
When you write, what is the first thing you write down? Yes, a word, but what next? Usually we start with a phrase that will become our sentence. A phrase is a group of words. To identify a phrase, remember the following:
- The group of words are related to each other but cannot stand alone. This means it is not a complete thought.
- A phrase will not contain a subject and a verb. It will only have one, so if you see both, it is not a phrase.
It is important to recognize a phrase because it is the start of a clause, which will become a sentence. In writing, we use phrases to add details and depth to our descriptions, which is good! We want to have stronger details. In addition, knowing how to recognize a phrase will help you avoid fragments, incomplete sentences in your writing. You know that feeling you get when you work on a paper and receive all those red marks? Not good. One way to eliminate some of those is to find grammatical errors, which fragments are.
Early in writing, you probably learned about the basic sentence components: a noun, verb, and a complete thought. While it is true that these three normally play the role that they should - a noun as the subject, a verb as the action, and then the complete thought - sometimes they take on other forms. A gerund is an example of this very thing.
What is a gerund? A gerund is a verb that acts as a noun. How does this happen? Let's first take an example of a verb, 'swimming.' Just looking at the word, you would think that this is a verb. It clearly represents an action.
'I am swimming every day after school.' In the sentence, we have a pronoun, 'I,' and a verb, 'swimming.' Swimming is definitely the action of the sentence.
But what about in the sentence 'I like swimming.'? It is the same word, but here it is not an action. No one is swimming. We have a pronoun 'I' and a verb 'like.' Swimming is what we enjoy doing. In this sentence, swimming is a gerund.
A gerund becomes a gerund phrase when it is joined by an object and any modifiers. For example, the word 'eating' by itself can be a gerund if we write, 'I like eating.' But it can become a gerund phrase when we write, 'Eating a large pizza by yourself can make you sick.' Here, 'eating' is still our gerund, but now we have a modifier 'a large pizza' and a preposition 'by yourself.' All of these statements are part of the gerund phrase.
Let's look at one more example. We could use the word 'driving' as a gerund if we write, 'I like driving.' We can then take this gerund and make a phrase if we write, 'Driving down an empty road makes me happy.' The phrase 'down an empty road' is a preposition that describes the gerund.
Starting to make a little bit of sense? Enough to add one more type of phrase? Our next type of phrase is a 'participial phrase.' To understand, let's first define 'participle.' Remember how gerunds are verbs acting like nouns? Well, participles are very similar to this.
A participle is a verb that is being used to describe a noun, making it an adjective. So, like a gerund, it is a verb not being a verb. With the two being so similar, how can you tell them apart? Well, a gerund is a noun. It will be the subject of the sentence. The participle will be an adjective. So, when you see a verb that ends in '-ing' not acting like a verb, take the time to ask yourself what role it is playing in the sentence. If it is a description, it is a participle.
For example, the word 'giggling' can be an action. If we write, 'The girls were giggling,' then 'giggling' is the verb of our sentence. However, if we write, 'The giggling girls were annoying,' 'giggling' now becomes an adjective, making it a participle.
A participle becomes a participial phrase when it is combined with other objects or modifiers. When all of these together describe the noun, it is a participial phrase. Let's look at the following sentence: 'Removing her coat, the young woman entered the room.' The phrase 'Removing her coat' describes the young woman as she entered the area. This is a participial phrase.
Okay, now that you have mastered the gerund and the participle, let's look at the prepositional phrase. A preposition is a word used to connect nouns to nouns or pronouns. They indicate a time or place. There are hundreds of prepositions that could be used in a sentence, which can make finding them a little tricky. One way to remember prepositions is to picture a mountain. What are the ways you could travel towards or move on the mountain? You could go up, down, around, through, by, far, near, and many more.
A prepositional phrase is the preposition and any modifiers used with it. They are used in sentences as adjectives or adverbs and will help you add more detail to your writing. For example, the word 'at' is a preposition. The phrase 'at home' is a prepositional one. It contains the preposition 'at' and its modifier 'home.'
Yes, prepositional phrases can be longer than just two words. For example, 'The strawberries in the garden are moldy.' The phrase 'in the garden' is a prepositional phrase that describes the strawberries.
Let's look at just one more example: 'The towel on the bathroom floor is wet and smelly.' Here, the prepositional phrase 'on the bathroom floor' describes the towel.
While dissecting sentences may seem intimidating, learning about the basic components of a sentence will help with those feelings. A sentence begins with a phrase, a group of words that are related to each other. This will then become a clause, which will become a sentence. A phrase cannot stand alone because it is not a complete thought. It does not contain both a subject and verb but only one.
There are several different types of phrases. A gerund phrase contains a gerund, a verb that acts as a noun and its modifiers. A participle phrase contains a participle, a verb that acts as an adjective and its modifiers. And a prepositional phrases contains a preposition, a word used to connect a noun to a noun and its modifiers.
Knowing how to identify a phrase will help you in your writing. First, you will avoid fragments, which are incomplete sentences. If you see a phrase by itself, not joined in a sentence, then you know it is a fragment and can correct it. Second, it helps you add details to your writing. When you write, you want your audience to really visualize your story and specific details will help with this.
So, the next time that you are sitting in class and a teacher starts to talk about sentence structure, phrases, and clauses, just take a breath and relax. Look for these key ideas, and identifying a phrase will be much easier.