Grammar 101: Untangling Clauses & Phrases

“Anarchy is as detestable in grammar as it is in society.”
Maurice Druon

 

If there’s one aspect of key stage 2 grammar I see being taught incorrectly more often than anything else, it’s the difference between phrases and clauses. There seems to be a lot of confusion and muddled thinking among teachers about this aspect of grammar. And it’s not surprising: it’s complicated stuff. So. in this post I want to break these things open to see how they work, and to see how we can simplify these difficult concepts for children to grasp more easily.

 

A rebel without a clause

Now, I’ve discussed clauses before, so if you want more detailed explanations I suggest reading these posts:

Grammar 101: Clauses Pt 1 where I explain clauses and the different categories

Grammar 101: Clauses Pt 2 – Why Clauses Matter where I explain… well, it’s in the title… why understanding clauses matters

Grammar 101: Clauses Pt 3 – Traffic Lights where I explain how main clauses work and how they are the starting point for more complex sentence structure

But, for those of you who are short on time (and as I suspect the only folks reading this blog are teachers, that’s pretty much all of you), here’s a what-you-need-to-know synopsis.

Dictionary.com defines a clause as: ‘a syntactic construction containing a subject and a predicate and forming part of a sentence or constituting a whole simple sentence’. Let’s simplify this definition to ‘a structure containing a subject and a predicate’ and apply this to a simple clause [fig. 1].

[fig. 1]

In simple terms, a subject tells us who or what the sentence is about: in this case ‘a family of squirrels’. And the predicate tells us something about the subject, most commonly what the subject does, in which case it will answer the question ‘What does the subject do?’ In our case, the answer to the question, ‘What did the subject do?’ is ‘lived in Jim’s beard.’ A predicate always contains a single verb – in our example, ‘lived’, so we end up with [fig. 2].

[fig. 2]

Because the key identifier of a predicate is the verb, we could simply say that a clause is a structure that contains a subject and a verb (we are almost saying the same thing). And there’s a simple relationship between subject and verb – the subject performs the action of the verb (unless we’re in the passive voice, but that’s something for another time).  Our  subject, ‘a family of squirrels’, performs the action, ‘lived’.

And that seems simple enough. Except it isn’t.

What about this clause in [fig. 3]?

[fig.3]

We can find a verb easily enough: ‘stroke’ [fig. 4]. But there is no subject.  It’s not ‘Jim’s beard’ as it is not performing the action ‘stroked’ (it is, rather, the object of the verb). The clause is all predicate.

[fig.4]

That’s because the subject is implied. As our clause is a command (to use the national curriculum definition), the subject is not directly stated, but like all commands, is understood to be ‘you’, the reader of the sentence.

And implied subjects are in so many clauses. Take this example in [fig.5].

[fig.5]

We have ‘clause a’, the same clause from [fig.1] and [fig.2] which contains the subject ‘a family of squirrels’ and the verb ‘lived’. ‘Clause b’ contains the verb ‘feasting’, but the subject of feasting (the who or what that is feasting) is the same as, ‘clause a’ – ‘a family of squirrels. So we don’t have two subject/verb structures as in the classical definition of a clause.

So including the subject in our definition of clauses is problematic: some clauses have implied subjects; other clauses share subjects. Good luck untangling all of that with most key stage 2 children.

But there is one thing that’s consistent across all clauses: the verb. All clauses contain a single verb (or verb phrase, but we’ll come to that later). So my teaching definition of a clause is simple:

clause: a sentence pattern that contains a single verb or verb phrase

Frankly, I don’t care if it lacks nuance or sophistication. I’m not teaching degree level grammar. I can save the nuance and sophistication for key stage 3 and beyond. I want a working explanation that is simple, straight forward, has children latching on to the concept quickly and allows them to apply it to their writing. And this simple definition, although crude, works.

What this means is that we can count the clauses in a sentence by simply counting the verbs. [fig.6] has four verbs (underlined) so there must be four clauses.

[fig.6]

And each verb forms the nucleus of its own clause: no two verbs will be in the same clause, as in [fig.7] (coloured using my Rainbow Grammar system for those in the know):

[fig.7]

Our four clauses are:

  • a family of squirrels lived in Jim’s beard
  • feasting upon the food
  • that lodged among the wiry hairs
  • as he carelessly stuffed it into his mouth

So, in a nutshell:

  • a clause contains one, and only one verb;
  • to know how many clauses are in a sentence, count the verbs;
  •  if it doesn’t contain a verb, it’s not a clause.

And it’s the last point that is often so misunderstood. I have lost count of the amount of times I have seen teachers present clauses for analysis by children using sentence structures that simply don’t contain verbs. One clause has one verb. Done.

 

Set your phrases to stun

And if clauses are so often misunderstood, then phrases cause even more difficulty.

Dictionary.com defines a phrase asa sequence of two or more words that does not contain a finite verb and its subject or that does not consist of clause elements such as subject, verb, object, or complement, as a preposition and a noun pr pronoun, an adjective and noun, or an adverb and verb. That makes my brain ache a little to untangle all of that and it’s of little use to the primary teacher.

The most common explanation I hear in the primary classroom is that a phrase is a ‘little group of words’, but this runs into difficulties quite quickly as in [fig.8]:

[fig.8]

By this definition, ‘b’ is more likely to a phrase than ‘a’, but that would be incorrect. Quite simply, length has little to do with it. So let me propose a much simpler definition, but before doing so, let’s start with word classes.

The national curriculum identifies 8 word classes to be taught (all by the end of Year 4): nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, determiners and conjunctions. My definition of any of these word classes always begins with ‘a single word that…’. So a noun is a single word that describes a person, place, thing or idea; an adjectives is a single word that describes a noun; and so on.  Several of these word classes have been identified in [fig. 9].

[fig.9]

The noun ‘squirrel’ describes a group of things. The verb ‘nest’ describes an action. The adverb ‘often’ describes the verb ‘nest’ (by describing when the squirrels nest). And the adjective ‘thick’ describes a noun (in this case the noun ‘beard’).

Now. let’s introduce the concept of phrase. My teaching definition of a phrase is:

phrase: group of words that does the same job as a single word

So, a noun phrase is group of words that does the same job as a noun in that it describes a person, place, thing or idea; an adverb, or adverbial, phrase is a group of words that does the same job as an adverb in that it describes a verb (other words too, I know, but let’s keep this simple).  So, we can replace the four words we labelled in [fig.8] with phrases in [fig.10].

[fig.10]

In this case each phrase performs the same task as a single word in the previous example.

The group of words ‘a family of squirrels’ does the same job as the single word ‘squirrels’ (they both describe a group of things). It’s a group of words that does the same job as a noun, so it’s a noun phrase.

The group of words ‘is nesting’ does the same job as the single word ‘nest’ (they both describe an action). It’s a group of words that does the same job as a verb, so it’s a verb phrase.

The group of words ‘this autumn’ does the same job as the single word ‘often’ (they both describe when the squirrels ‘nest’). It’s a group of words that does the same job as an adverb, so it’s an adverb phrase.

And the group of words ‘feather-soft’ does the same job as the single word ‘thick’ (they both describe the noun ‘beard’). It’s a group of words that does the same job as an adjective, so it’s an adjective phrase.

It’s easy to pick holes in this simple understanding of a phrase as a group of words that does the same job as a single word, but again, quite simply, I don’t care. It’s simple, consistent across all phrase types and unlocks difficult abstract concepts for young minds. Simplicity is the key when explaining complicated grammatical concepts, and a common error is to introduce too much complexity too soon. Instead, this simplicity provides children with the firm foundations to explore nuance and subtlety later.

So, that’s it. My simple teaching definitions for two difficult but important grammatical concepts:

clause: a sentence pattern that contains a single verb or verb phrase

phrase: group of words that does the same job as a single word

Al too often I see children working on relative clauses, adverbial phrases, expanded noun phrases and the like when they don’t have a clear understanding of what a clause or a phrase is. They are building castles on swamps. The foundations aren’t there to properly support their understanding.

I’ll dig a little deeper into the different clause and phrase types in future posts, so watch this space.

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