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I. O. Macari, Morpho-syntax, Lecture 5 sem.

I, 2016 , Lect

4. The Phrase
4.1. Types of phrase

When examining a clause in English, one can sense that it is made up of words or groups of
words connected by relations that turn them into units (see 2.6.). To understand how such
relations work, look at the examples below:
The dog| ate| the treat|. SVO pattern
The big friendly dog of my neighbour on the third floor| ate| the tasty treat on the table near the
window that gave on the park in front of the Old Catholic Cathedral|. SVO pattern
The two clauses, though very different in length, are both SVO clauses, and have exactly the same
clause elements: subject, verb, and object.
The difference then should rest at phrase level, because syntactic functions in the clause are
realised by phrases. Indeed, every clause element consists of a grammatical unit, called phrase.
Both the dog and the big friendly dog of my neighbour on the third floor are noun phrases that
fulfil the function of subject.
 Notice: Romanian speakers of English have to be aware of the fact that phrase and frază
are false friends, because they look and sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.
The head is the most important element of the phrase, the word that cannot be omitted without
destroying the phrase itself. To put it differently, if the clause pattern is the minimal structure of a
clause, the head is the minimal structure of a phrase.
The head determines the relationships and the behaviour of the phrase as a whole. In the two
examples above, both subjects consist of nouns phrases. They are recognized as noun phrases
because the central element in both is the noun dog and, consequently, each phrase behaves as a
noun.
The table below contains an example for each of the five types of phase in English.
type example word-class of head
1. noun phrase a nice chat noun: chat
2. verb phrase must have been dreaming verb: dreaming
3. adjective phrase very nice adjective: nice
4. adverb phrase very calmly adverb: calmly
5. prepositional phrase of the language preposition: of
It is important to note that the number of phrase types (five) is smaller than the number of word -
classes (ten). For comparison, they are put side by side below:
type of phrase examples word-classes examples
I. O. Macari, Morpho-syntax, Lecture 5 sem. I, 2016 , Lect

noun phrase (NP) (the friendly) dog nouns dog


verb phrase (VP) go verbs go
adjective phrase (AdjP) (very) nice adjectives nice
adverb phrase (AdvP) (very) slowly adverbs slowly
prepositional phrase (PpP) to the dog prepositions to
-- -- pronouns it
-- -- numerals five
-- -- conjunctions and
-- -- determiners the
-- -- interjections ouch
Pronouns, numerals, conjunctions, determiners, and interjections do not have a corresponding
phrase (there is no example of Pronoun Phrase or Numeral Phrase). As for pronouns and
numerals only, sometimes they can occupy the position of head of a noun phrase ([NP I] love his
novels! [NP I]'ve read [NP five].) or, in the case of numerals, of an adverb phrase (He came [AdvP
fifth] in the car race.)
We already know that each phrase, except the prepositional phrase, can consist of the head only.
To see how that works, let us look again at the bracketed noun phrases in the examples above:
the dog and the big friendly dog of my neighbour on the third floor. The longer phrase can be
contracted to the head only – dog – by removing in turns all the determinatives and modifiers, or
can be expanded into a longer sequence by adding the modifiers back. If we scale the phrase as
below, it becomes obvious that depending on where we start from, top – down or bottom – up,
various head dependents can be added/ removed before and after the head.
[the dog]
[the big friendly dog]
[the big friendly dog of my neighbour]
[the big friendly dog of my neighbour on the third floor]
Each object in the two examples above also consists in a noun phrase: the treat and the tasty treat
on the table near the window that gave on the park in front of the Old Catholic Cathedral,
respectively, and the difference in length between them is even more outstanding. By arranging
them on the same pyramidal scale, it becomes obvious that a phrase that consists of other
elements besides the head can be analyzed in more than one way. This happens because, in
English, phrases can be embedded (see 2.6.3).
[NP [det the] treat]
[NP [det the] [AdjP tasty] treat]
[NP [det the] [AdjP tasty] treat [PpP on the table]]
[NP [det the] [AdjP tasty] treat [PpP on the table] [PpP near the window]]
[NP [det the] [AdjP tasty] treat [PpP on the table] [PpP near the window] [that-Cl that gave on the park]]
I. O. Macari, Morpho-syntax, Lecture 5 sem. I, 2016 , Lect

[NP [det the] [AdjP tasty] treat [PpP on the table] [PpP near the window] [that-Cl that gaveon the park] [PpP in front of the Old Catholic
Cathedral]]
As we can see, the treat on the first line is a noun phrase, which on the line below is combined
with an adjective – tasty, then with a prepositional phrase, on the table, which in turn is
combined with that gave on the park, to which in front of the Old Catholic Cathedral is added,
and such additions can potentially go on endlessly.
Notice that within a phrase, we can even add a clause like that gave on the park, as in the
window that gave on the park. Such occurrences, obtained by adding further phrases, or even
clauses, within the basic structure of a phrase, are examples of embedding (see 2.6.3.). The fact
that a phrase may contain another (embedded/nested) phrase or clause is one of the main features
of English phrases.

4.2. Syntactic functions of phrases

Another feature that describes phrases is the fact that there are two types of syntactic relations
that apply to them. As we have seen, phrases can have syntactic functions in the clause - they can
realise subjects, verbals, objects, complements or adverbials. At the same time, the phrases that
are embedded within other phases can have syntactic functions in the phrase they belong to.
The table below presents the major syntactic functions the different phrase types can have at
clause and phrase level.
phrase type syntactic function in clause syntactic function in phrase
noun phrase subject; direct object; indirect object; subject complement of preposition in PpP;
complement; object complement, adverbial premodifier in NP; apposition to other NP
verb phrase verbal -
adjective subject complement; object complement premodifier in NP; postmodifier in NP; head in
phrase NP
adverb adverbial modifier in AdjP, AdvP
phrase
prepositional adverbial postmodifier in NP; complement in AdjP;
phrase premodifier in NP
Examples for each situation above will be provided and discussed in the following sections.