Back to Section Home

Other Phrases: Verbal, Appositive, Absolute


A phrase is a group of words that lacks a subject, a predicate (verb), or both. The English language is full of them: under his supervision, apple trees in blossom, having completed the soccer season. You are probably familiar with prepositional phrases--they begin with prepositions, end with nouns (or pronouns), and they describe, or modify, a particular word in the sentence: along the Yahi Trail, above Salmon Hole. (For more, see the TIP Sheet "Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases.") But other kinds of phrases also enrich the English language: verbal, appositive, and absolute phrases.

1. Verbals are verb look-alikes.
A verbal looks like a verb but does not act like a verb. In the following sentences, verbals are used as something other than verbs:

Climbing El Capitan was out of the question. (Noun and subject of the sentence)
The applauding crowd rose to its feet. (Adjective)
I despise frozen peas. (Adjective)
He intends to study agricultural science. (Noun and direct object). 

There are three kinds of verbals:

  • Gerunds (-ing forms that function as nouns)
  • Participles (present or past participle verb forms that function as adjectives)
  • Infinitives (the root form of a verb preceded by to; it can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb)

Gerund phrases are nouns.
A gerund is an -ing verb form that actually functions as a noun. Any -ing verb used in the predicate (part of the verb) of a sentence must be accompanied by a helper verb such as is, was, or has been; a gerund lacks this helper. As a result, a gerund can never function as a verb, but it can do anything another noun can do. For example, the following gerund phrase is the subject of a sentence:

Backpacking in Little Yosemite Valley was unforgettable.

This one-word gerund is the direct object of an action verb:

Tom explained rappelling as we clambered up Half Dome.

Gerunds can be predicate nominatives after linking verbs (careful! The verb of the sentence below is was, not was stumbling. The adventure was not, itself, stumbling! The favorite adventure was our act of stumbling.):

Our favorite adventure was stumbling upon Frog Pond deep in the forest.

The following gerund phrase is the object of a preposition:

We worried about being swept away over the waterfall as we swam.

Participial phrases are adjectives.
Participial verbals--words or phrases--are adjectives. They look like present participle (-ing) or past participle (-ed or -en) verb forms. A past participle verb used in the predicate of a sentence must be accompanied by a helper verb such as has, had, or have; participles or participial phrases functioning as adjectives lack this helper. The following participial phrase describes the noun bear:

Grunting and snuffling noisily, the bear reached on tiptoe for our suspended food bags.

Above, suspended is a past participle form functioning as an adjective. Below, frozen and making introduce participial phrases:

Frozen in anticipation, our muffled breath making scarcely a sound, we watched the bear ascend the tree toward the ropes.

Frozen in anticipation modifies the pronoun we. Making scarcely a sound, on the other hand, modifies breath. Muffled is a participial adjective also describing breath.

Infinitive phrases are nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.
An infinitive is the root, or simple, form of a verb preceded by to: to expect, to enroll, to have thought. (Because to is a common preposition, infinitives are often mistaken for prepositional phrases, which they are not. For more information, see TIP Sheet "Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases.") Infinitives are easy to recognize, with their to + verb pattern. They can play many roles in a sentence--noun, adjective, or adverb.

In the following examples, infinitive phrases are used as nouns--in this case subject and direct object, respectively:

To watch the bear toss our things around was distressing.
We tried to signal our friends on Half Dome with a text message, but failed.

 On the other hand, the following infinitive phrase is used as an adjective to modify plans:

Our plans to continue on to Tuolumne Meadows changed suddenly once we lost our food supplies.

The following infinitive is an adverb phrase modifying the verb will use (adverbs answer the questions when, where, how, and why):

Next time, to prevent the loss of our food cache, we will use bear canisters instead.

(Note: Some verbs require an infinitive [claim to know] and some require a gerund [avoid stating]. And some verbs differ dramatically in meaning if you switch from gerund to infinitive [stop smoking, stop to smoke]).

2. Appositive phrases are nouns.
An appositive is a noun phrase that renames or restates the preceding noun or pronoun:

An overpowering fragrance, apple trees in blossom, drifted through the open window.

Appositive phrases are almost always punctuated as parenthetical elements of a sentence set off by commas. An exception is a one-word appositive, where commas are unnecessary:

My brother Joseph reads six or seven blogs a day.

3. Absolute phrases modify absolutely everything.
Unlike other modifiers, absolute phrases do not modify a particular word in a sentence; rather, they modify the entire sentence--setting the scene or background overall, so to speak. An absolute phrase typically consists of a noun (or pronoun) and a participle (see "Participial phrases," above): umbrellas tossing in the wind, his hopes dashed at last. In the following examples, notice that the absolute phrases cannot logically be said to modify any particular word of the main clause:

Umbrellas tossing in the wind, the students at the bus stop huddled under the scant shelter of the elms.
Rodrigo unhappily prepared to vacate and sell his dream home, his hopes for a reconciliation dashed at last.

Like appositives, absolute phrases are set off from the rest of the sentence by commas.



Butte College | 3536 Butte Campus Drive, Oroville CA 95965 | General Information 530.895.2511

Back to Top