Phrases: Noun and Appositive Phrases

Phrases  I

How to Use Noun Phrases and Appositive Phrases

by Owen Fourie

As we noted in Part One of the miniseries on clauses, there are different groups of words that we put together to make sense to our readers or hearers. There are sentences, clauses, and phrases.

The difference between phrases and clauses

It is important to distinguish between a phrase and a clause.

At this point in grammar, students seem to stumble, and they have great difficulty in telling the difference between clauses and phrases.

It all depends on whether a particular group of words has a subject and a verb.

If a group of words has a subject and a verb, it is a clause. An independent clause can stand on its own and make complete sense, in which case it is also a sentence.

A dependent or subordinate clause, although it has its own subject and verb, needs to be attached to an independent clause.

If a group of words does not have the subject-verb combination, it is a phrase.

Some phrases can actually have a subject and other sentence elements but not a finite verb. We’ll see this in the absolute phrase which we’ll study in Part Five of this series.

The nature of a phrase

Although it lacks the subject-verb combination, a phrase does bring words together into a unit that functions as a meaningful part of a sentence.

A phrase might contain a preposition, an adjective, and a noun. It will function as a single unit, perhaps as an adjective modifying a noun elsewhere in the sentence.

In this post, we’ll look at two types of phrases: the noun phrase and the appositive phrase.

The Noun Phrase

A noun phrase functions as a noun.

A few examples will illustrate some of its functions in a sentence. The noun phrases are in italics:

  • The software manager has an idea. (noun phrase as subject);
  • He met a leading software development engineer. (noun phrase as direct object);
  • The software development engineer gave the software manager many ideas. (noun phrase as indirect object);
  • The software development engineer is the author of several books. (noun phrase as complement);
  • The software manager was excited about the software development engineer’s lecture. (noun phrase as object of a preposition);
  • The software manager’s plan is popular. (noun phrase as possessive)

A noun phrase contains a noun and its modifiers including other phrases. Here are two more examples with the noun phrase in italics:

  • Many names for the new software program are being used.
  • Many names are being used for the new software program.

In the second version, the noun phrase is in two parts, which is something that can be done for emphasis or focus.

Note that the word names is the subject of the sentence while the words are being used serve as the verb phrase of the sentence. The noun phrase contains the subject but not the verb.

The basic noun phrase is many names, but it can be extended to include the prepositional phrase for the new software program as its modifier.

The Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that tells you more about the noun or noun phrase that comes immediately before it. One part is said to be in apposition (note, not opposition) to the other.

The software development engineer, an author of several books, delivered an excellent lecture.

The appositive phrase, an author of several books, stands in apposition to the noun phrase the software development engineer telling you more about that person. In a sense, it is renaming that person.

This is perhaps the easiest phrase to identify.

In Part Two, we’ll look at gerund phrases, adjectival phrases, and participial phrases.


Are there any phrases mentioned here that you find difficult to identify? If so, which are they and what confuses you? What are your particular struggles with English Grammar? If you need help with any grammar problem, ask here. Do you have any useful insights? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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