The theory of a phrase

 Syntax. Phrase

Syntax (from Greek syntaxis – arrangement) is a study of the arrangement, or connection of words. Here we should distinguish two levels^ that of phrase (or word-groups) and that of sentences.

There is no unity of opinion among linguists concerning the definition of the term “phrase”. According to Russian linguists the term word-combination can be applied to such groups of words which contain at least two notional words, forming a grammatical unit, e.g. fine weather, to speak English fluently, etc.

Western scholars have a different view of the problem. They consider every combination of two or more words which constitutes a unit to be a phrase. They don’t limit the term “phrase” to combination of notional words only and draw a sharp distinction between the two types of word groups such as: wise men and in the morning.

According to H. Sweet when words are joined together grammatically and logically without forming a full sentence, we call the combination a word-group.

According to Pr. Ilyish, a phrase is any combination of two or more words which is a grammatical unit but is not an analytical form of some word (as, for instance the perfect forms of verbs). The constituent element of a phrase may belong to any part of speech.

The difference between a phrase and a sentence is a fundamental one. The sentence is a basic unit of communication. The phrase is a unit of nomination. It must be kept in mind that a phrase has no intonation just as a word has none. Intonation is one of the most significant feature of a sentence, which distinguishes it from a phrase. A classical word-group is a non-predicative unit, because a word-group does not carry predication (only sentence can carry it). A word group is a static explanation, a sentence carries some dynamic force. E ach component of a phrase can undergo grammatical changes in accordance with grammatical categories represented in it. For in the phrase write letters the first component can change its tense or mood and the second component – its number.

With the sentence things are entirely different. A sentence is a unit with every word having its definite form. A change in the form of one or more words would produce a new sentence.

According to H. Sweet the most general relation between words in sentences from a logical point of view is that of adjunct-word and headed-word, or we may also express it of modifier and modified. Thus in the sentences tall men are not always strong, all men are not strong, tall, and all are adjunct-words modifying the meaning of the head-word men.

This distinction between adjunct-word and head-word is only a relative one: the same word may be a head-word in one sentence or context, and an adjunct-word in another, and the same word may even be a head-word and an adjunct-word at the same time. Thus in a very strong man, strong is an adjunct-word to man, and at the same time head-word to the adjunct-word very, which again, may itself be a head-word, as in he is not very strong.

In Kruisinga’s grammar we find an elaboration of the same principle in his theory of close and loose word-groups (a Handbook of Present-Day English). We speak of a close group when one of the members is syntactically the leading element of the group. We speak of a loose group when each element is comparatively independent of the other members (men and women). Close groups are subdivided according to their leading member into verb groups (you can go; finished undressing; to hear a noise; he lives here), noun groups (a village church, Mary’s dress), adjective groups (very beautiful), adverb groups (very well), preposition groups (in the morning).

Loose syntactic groups are subdivided into linking groups (five and twenty) and unlinked groups (a low soft breathing).

Syntactic theory of O. Jesperson comprises the concept of junction and nexus (i.e. of attributive and predicative relations) as well as the theory of ranks, applies both top relations between the members of a word-group and the parts of a sentence. In a junction связывание  the joining of the two elements is so close that they may be considered one composite name.

E.g. A silly person – a fool

      The warmest season – summer

      A very tall person – a giant

In examples like the door is red and the dog barks the nexus ядро  is independent and forms a whole sentence, i.e. give a complete bit of information.

We can also establish different ‘ranks’ of words according to their mutual relations as defined or defining. In the combination extremely hot weather the last word weather, which is evidently the chief idea, may be called primary; hot which defines weather secondary and extremely, which defines hot, tertiary.

Classification of word groups

Prof. Bloch singles out three types of phrases:

Notional phrases: traffic rules, to go fast, John and Marry, he writes, etc.

Formative phrases: at the table, with difficulty, out of sight, etc.

Functional phrases: from out of, so that, up to, etc.

Prof. Barchudarov classified word groups according to the way the headword is expressed. He distinguished coordinate word groups, subordinate word groups and predicative word groups.

Coordinate word groups are groups of words, which have the same function, they are joined together either a (synthetically) syndetically or asyndetically (you and me, Mary and Peter).

As to subordinate word groups they always have the head and the adjunct (зависимое слово).

They are further classified from the point of view of how their headword is expressed:

  •  Nounal word groups (mild weather, a country doctor)
  •  Adjectival word groups (dark red, very strong, very nice)
  •  Verbal word groups (to hear a noise, to write a letter)
  •  Adverbial word groups (very well, pretty easily, very suddenly)

A predicative word group is a special kind of word group with predicative relations between the nominal and the verbal parts (not the general predication of the sentence but a secondary one only) can’t be found in Russia. Here belong five main types of complexes:

  •  The Complex Object I want you to do
  •  The Complex Subject
  •  The For-phrase
  •  The Gerundial Complex
  •  The Absolute Nominative Participial Construction his work finish. He goes home

     L.Bloomfield distinguishes two main classes of phrases: endocentric phrases (containing a head: word or centre) and exocentric phrases (non-headed).

In the sentence Poor John ran away, the noun John may substitute for Poor John. – John ran away. Thus, according to Bloomfield Poor John is an endocentric phrase. In the sentence Mary and Tom ran away, both Tom and Mary may stand for the whole phrase: Tom ran away, Mary ran away. Thus, this phrase is also endocentric.

Exocentric phrases can’t stand for the whole group in a large structure: John ran, beside John.

L. Bloomfield


Endocentric                                                                Exocentric

(headed)                                                                     (non-headed)

Subordination         Coordination

                                                                  syntactic predicate        morphological

Peace movement    men and women                relations           (prepositional phrase)

Poor John               Mary and Peter

                              (two heads are inside    John ran away         beside John

                               the phrase)



  According to the modern approach phrases are subdivided into headed and non-headed. Headed phrases have the head (ядро) and the adjunct (зависимое слово). They are further classified according to:

       1) the distribution of the adjunct into progressive (right-hand distribution of the                                  adjunct), e.g. to write a letter,  a candidate to the prize and regressive (left-hand distribution of the adjunct), e.g. a country doctor, mild weather

       2) the way the head-word is expressed into:

        Nounal or substantival, e.g. sport event

     Adjectival, e.g. very beautiful

   Verbal, e.g. to write a letter

    Adverbial, e.g. very well

    Non-headed phrases are divided into:

      1) independent (the constituents are relatively independent), e.g. Mary and John, he writes and dependent (the constituents depend on the context), e.g. my own (dog), his old (friend)

     2) one-class (constituents belong to the same part of speech), e.g. Oxford and Cambridge and different-class phrases (the constituents belong to different parts of speech), e.g. I see

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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