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Group of (one or more) words
In grammar, a phrase—called expression in some contexts—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 which contains the adjective phrase "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.
In theories of syntax, 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, or a determiner phrase in some theories, which functions as the object of the sentence.
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:
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, 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 is called a noun phrase. The remaining words in a phrase are called the dependents of the head.
In the following phrases the head-word, or head, is bolded:
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.
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.
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 names.
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.
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.