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syntax In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and ...
and
grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and ...
, a phrase is a group of words or singular word acting as a grammatical unit. For instance, the English expression "the very happy squirrel" is a
noun phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
which contains the
adjective phrase An adjective phrase (or adjectival phrase) is a phrase whose head A head is the part of an organism which usually includes the ears, brain A brain is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most ...
"very happy". Phrases can consist of a single word or a complete sentence. In theoretical linguistics, phrases are often analyzed as units of syntactic structure such as a constituent.


Common and technical use

There is a difference between the common use of the term ''phrase'' and its technical use in linguistics. In common usage, a phrase is usually a group of words with some special
idiom An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase; but some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language ...
atic meaning or other significance, such as " all rights reserved", " economical with the truth", " kick the bucket", and the like. It may be a
euphemism A euphemism () is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that is deemed offensive or suggests something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes ...
, a saying or proverb, a fixed expression, a
figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that intentionally deviates from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic (or dialectic), ...
, etc.. In
linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and complex brain. This ...
, these are known as phrasemes. In theories of
syntax In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and ...
, a phrase is any group of words, or sometimes a single word, which plays a particular role within the syntactic structure of a sentence. It does not have to have any special meaning or significance, or even exist anywhere outside of the sentence being analyzed, but it must function there as a complete grammatical unit. For example, in the sentence ''Yesterday I saw an orange bird with a white neck'', the words ''an orange bird with a white neck'' form a
noun phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
, or a determiner phrase in some theories, which functions as the object of the sentence.


Phrase trees

Many theories of syntax and grammar illustrate sentence structure using phrase ' trees', which provide schematics of how the words in a sentence are grouped and relate to each other. A tree shows the words, phrases, and clauses that make up a sentence. Any word combination that corresponds to a complete subtree can be seen as a phrase. There are two competing principles for constructing trees; they produce 'constituency' and 'dependency' trees and both are illustrated here using an example sentence. The constituency-based tree is on the left and the dependency-based tree is on the right: :: The tree on the left is of the constituency-based,
phrase structure grammar The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread ...
, and the tree on the right is of the
dependency grammar Dependency grammar (DG) is a class of modern grammatical theories that are all based on the dependency relation (as opposed to the ''constituency relation'' of phrase structure) and that can be traced back primarily to the work of Lucien Tesni ...
. The node labels in the two trees mark the syntactic category of the different constituents, or word elements, of the sentence. In the constituency tree each phrase is marked by a phrasal node (NP, PP, VP); and there are eight phrases identified by phrase structure analysis in the example sentence. On the other hand, the dependency tree identifies a phrase by any node that exerts dependency upon, or dominates, another node. And, using dependency analysis, there are six phrases in the sentence. The trees and phrase-counts demonstrate that different theories of syntax differ in the word combinations they qualify as a phrase. Here the constituency tree identifies three phrases that the dependency trees does not, namely: ''house at the end of the street'', ''end of the street'', and ''the end''. More analysis, including about the plausibilities of both grammars, can be made empirically by applying constituency tests.


Heads and dependents

In grammatical analysis, most phrases contain a
head A head is the part of an organism which usually includes the ears, brain A brain is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals. It is located in the head, usually close t ...
, which identifies the type and linguistic features of the phrase. The syntactic category of the head is used to name the category of the phrase; for example, a phrase whose head is a
noun A noun () is a word A word is a basic element of language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by ...
is called a
noun phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
. The remaining words in a phrase are called the dependents of the head. In the following phrases the head-word, or head, is bolded: ::too slowly — Adverb phrase (AdvP); the head is an adverb ::very happy —
Adjective phrase An adjective phrase (or adjectival phrase) is a phrase whose head A head is the part of an organism which usually includes the ears, brain A brain is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most ...
(AP); the head is an adjective
::the massive dinosaur —
Noun phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
(NP); the head is a noun (but see below for the ''determiner phrase'' analysis)
::at lunch — Preposition phrase (PP); the head is a preposition ::watch TV —
Verb phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
(VP); the head is a verb
The above five examples are the most common of phrase types; but, by the logic of heads and dependents, others can be routinely produced. For instance, the subordinator phrase: ::before that happened — Subordinator phrase (SP); the head is a subordinating conjunction—it subordinates the independent clause By linguistic analysis this is a group of words that qualifies as a phrase, and the head-word gives its syntactic name, "subordinator", to the grammatical category of the entire phrase. But this phrase, "before that happened", is more commonly classified in other grammars, including traditional English grammars, as a subordinate clause (or dependent clause); and it is then labelled ''not'' as a phrase, but as a
clause In language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are th ...
. Most theories of syntax view most phrases as having a head, but some non-headed phrases are acknowledged. A phrase lacking a head is known as exocentric, and phrases with heads are endocentric.


Functional categories

Some modern theories of syntax introduce functional categories in which the head of a phrase is a functional lexical item. Some functional heads in some languages are not pronounced, but are rather covert. For example, in order to explain certain syntactic patterns which correlate with the speech act a sentence performs, some researchers have posited ''force phrases'' (ForceP), whose heads are not pronounced in many languages including English. Similarly, many frameworks assume that covert determiners are present in bare noun phrases such as
proper name A proper noun is a noun A noun () is a word A word is a basic element of language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languag ...
s. Another type is the inflectional phrase, where (for example) a finite verb phrase is taken to be the complement of a functional, possibly covert head (denoted INFL) which is supposed to encode the requirements for the verb to inflect – for agreement with its subject (which is the specifier of INFL), for tense and aspect, etc. If these factors are treated separately, then more specific categories may be considered: ''tense phrase'' (TP), where the verb phrase is the complement of an abstract "tense" element; ''aspect phrase''; ''agreement phrase'' and so on. Further examples of such proposed categories include ''topic phrase'' and ''focus phrase'', which are argued to be headed by elements that encode the need for a constituent of the sentence to be marked as the topic or focus.


Variation among theories of syntax

Theories of syntax differ in what they regard as a phrase. For instance, while most if not all theories of syntax acknowledge the existence of
verb phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
s (VPs),
Phrase structure grammar The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread ...
s acknowledge both finite verb phrases and non-finite verb phrases while
dependency grammar Dependency grammar (DG) is a class of modern grammatical theories that are all based on the dependency relation (as opposed to the ''constituency relation'' of phrase structure) and that can be traced back primarily to the work of Lucien Tesni ...
s only acknowledge non-finite verb phrases. The split between these views persists due to conflicting results from the standard empirical diagnostics of phrasehood such as constituency tests.For empirical arguments against finite VP's, see Miller (2011:54f.) and Osborne (2011:323f.). The distinction is illustrated with the following examples: ::The Republicans may nominate Newt. - Finite VP in bold ::The Republicans may nominate Newt. - Non-finite VP in bold The syntax trees of this sentence are next: :: The constituency tree on the left shows the finite verb string ''may nominate Newt'' as a constituent; it corresponds to VP1. In contrast, this same string is not shown as a phrase in the dependency tree on the right. However, both trees, take the non-finite VP string ''nominate Newt'' to be a constituent.


See also

*
Clause In language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are th ...
*
Constituent (linguistics) In syntactic analysis, a constituent is a word or a group of words that function as a single unit within a hierarchical structure. The constituent structure of sentences is identified using ''tests for constituents''. These tests apply to a porti ...
*
Dependency grammar Dependency grammar (DG) is a class of modern grammatical theories that are all based on the dependency relation (as opposed to the ''constituency relation'' of phrase structure) and that can be traced back primarily to the work of Lucien Tesni ...
* Finite verb *
Head (linguistics) In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
* Non-finite verb *
Phrase structure grammar The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread ...
* Sentence (linguistics) * Syntactic category *
Verb phrase In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and com ...
* Phraseme *
X-bar theory In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterized by bipedalism and exceptional cognitive skills due to a large and co ...


Notes


References

*Finch, G. 2000. Linguistic terms and concepts. New York: St. Martin's Press. *Kroeger, Paul 2005
Analyzing grammar: An introduction
Cambridge University Press. *Miller, J. 2011
A critical introduction to syntax
London: continuum. *Osborne, Timothy, Michael Putnam, and Thomas Gross 2011
Bare phrase structure, label-less structures, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar?
The Linguistic Review 28: 315-364. *Sobin, N. 2011. Syntactic analysis: The basics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. {{div col end Syntactic categories