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Style Manual

Phrases

Phrases are groups of words that add meaning to a sentence. Write and punctuate them correctly to give people clear and useful information.

Phrases are groups of words with a specific function

A phrase is a group of words that makes sense on its own but doesn’t contain a subject and a verb.

Phrases can only add meaning to a sentence. They can’t stand on their own.

Types of phrases include:

  • noun phrases
  • adverbial phrases
  • adjectival phrases.

Noun phrases function as nouns

A noun phrase is a group of words that works in a sentence as a noun. A noun phrase always includes a noun. It can also include determiners, adjectives, adverbs and other nouns.

Example

Our well-prepared colleague entered the meeting room.

[The phrase ‘our well-prepared colleague’ works as the noun in the sentence. This phrase contains the determiner ‘our’, the adjective ‘well-prepared’ and the noun ‘colleague’.]

She was well suited to life in an office.

[The phrase ‘life in an office’ works as the noun in the sentence. This phrase contains the noun ‘life’, the preposition ‘in’, the determiner ‘an’ and the noun ‘office’.]

Possessive phrases

A possessive phrase is a particular type of noun phrase. It shows that one noun in the phrase belongs to another noun in the phrase. Possessive phrases usually have an apostrophe.

Example

I thought it was someone else’s problem.

[The problem belongs to someone else.]

This was one of the commander-in-chief’s first orders to the troops.

[The first orders belong to the commander-in-chief.]

Non-possessive and generic phrases

Non-possessive and generic phrases use plural nouns as adjectives. No apostrophes are needed.

Example

She signed the visitors book.

[The book doesn’t belong to the visitors. The word ‘visitors’ describes the type of book.]

The Historic Shipwrecks Delegates Committee met once a year.

[The committee is made up of delegates. The name of the committee relates to the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.]

Adverbial phrases function as adverbs

An adverbial phrase is a group of words that describes a verb, adjective or other adverb.

Example

Grammar rules are quite frequently misunderstood.

[The phrase ‘quite frequently’ modifies the adjective ‘misunderstood’.]

Best of all, we can tick this off the list.

[The phrase ‘best of all’ modifies the main clause ‘we can tick this off the list’.] 

Adverbial phrases can describe the manner of or reason for a verb’s action.

Example

We’ll do this by the rules. [Adverbial phrase of manner]

We came inside because of the rain. [Adverbial phrase of reason]

Adverbial phrases can also describe time and place. These are known as ‘prepositional phrases’. Prepositional phrases consist of:

  • the preposition
  • any adjectives or determiners that accompany it.
Example

I’ll see you after knock-off time. [Adverbial phrase of time]

The manual sat on the shelf. [Adverbial phrase of place]

Adjectival phrases function as adjectives

An adjectival phrase is a group of words that works as an adjective. It modifies a pronoun, noun or noun phrase.

Example

The staff showcased their work on the new project.

[The phrase ‘on the new project’ describes the staff’s work.]

Adjectival phrases that modify a pronoun, noun or noun phrase can also appear after the verb ‘to be’.

Example

They are eager to hear good news.

[The phrase ‘eager to hear good news’ describes the pronoun ‘they’.]

The developer was categorical about accessibility requirements.

[The phrase ‘categorical about accessibility requirements’ describes the noun phrase ‘the developer’.]

Adjectival phrases can start with a preposition. They are also known as prepositional phrases.

Example

The top line in the budget report showed a deficit.

[The preposition ‘in’ starts the prepositional phrase ‘in the budget report’, which describes ‘the top line’.]

Release notes

The digital edition has practical guidance on plain language. It relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language.

The digital edition consolidates information from the sixth edition and highlights the basics about clauses. It takes a different approach to the sixth edition by breaking related topics into specific subject areas like ‘phrases’ and ‘types of words’.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.

About this page

References

Altenberg EP and Vago RM (2010) English grammar: understanding the basics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

European Commission (2020) English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission website, accessed 6 May 2020.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Strunk W and White EB (2000) The elements of style, 4th edn, Longman, New York.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Monday 12 October 2020.

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