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Adjectives - Phrases and Clauses

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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It’s SHOUTING time again. Wake up. This stuff is important.

There are two main types of word chunks, clauses and phrases. A clause is a bunch of words with a conjugated verb in it. A phrase is a bunch of words without a conjugated verb in it.

In the section on nouns, you learned a key concept about chunks of words that act as nouns. Well, the same thing happens here with adjectives. Other chunks of words—words that are not adjectives in and of themselves—will act as adjectives in your sentences, that is, they will perform the function of an adjective, which is to describe a noun or pronoun.

I will introduce the primary chunks of words here, using terms we have yet to discuss in much detail. Just remember, the eight parts of speech are highly interrelated, so talking about adjectives, for example, often requires talking about prepositions and other parts of speech.

Also, keep this in mind: There are two main types of word chunks, clauses and phrases. A clause is a bunch of words with a conjugated verb in it. A phrase is a bunch of words without a conjugated verb in it.

Phrases Acting as Adjectives

A variety of phrases in our language will serve the role of adjective. If you were among the fortunate few who diagramed sentences in your youth, you’ll no doubt recall putting the phrases under the nouns they modified. Here’s a list of the most prevalent phrases that act as adjectives, along with examples. In the examples, I’ll put the adjective phrase in bold and put the noun modified in bold underlined:

Phrase Acting as an Adjective Example
1. prepositional phrase The book on the table featured beautiful photos.
2. present-participial phrase (-ing phrase) Look at the man sitting on the park bench.
3. past-participial phrase (-ed phrase) The money deposited by the customer paid off the loan.
4. infinitive phrase (to phrase) The most popular movie to hit the theaters in decades was Titanic.
5. adjectival phrase (discussed above) The machines available to the weightlifters required a complicated assembly.


Notice that numbers 2, 3, and 4 are verbal phrases. Notice also that those verbs are not conjugated. They do not reveal tense, person, or number. Thus, these chunks of words are phrases, not clauses.

Clauses Acting as Adjectives

Now let’s look at two typical adjective clauses, the restrictive (that) clause and the nonrestrictive (comma which) clause. For good measure, I’ll throw in some who and whom clauses as well. Don’t panic if you don’t know the differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Right now we won’t discuss these clauses, that vs. which, or who vs. whom. We’ll postpone these juicy topics to the section on pronouns and to the eBook Developing a Powerful Writing Style where we learn about the use of clauses and phrases.

In the examples, I’ll put the adjective clause in bold and the noun or pronoun modified in bold underlined.

Clause Acting as an Adjective Example
1. restrictive (that) clause This is the song that hurts the most.
2. nonrestrictive (which) clause The gamewhich attracted 100,000 people, lasted more than five hours.
3. restrictive (who) clause He who laughs last laughs best.
4. nonrestrictive (who) clause Senator Smithwho lost his notes, gave the speech anyway.
5. restrictive (whom) clause The man whom she met at the club would later become her husband.
6. nonrestrictive (whom) clause This authorwhom we all admire, finally succeeded after many years of obscurity.
7. restrictive (whose) clause The player whose enthusiasm carries the team usually receives the MVP award.
8. nonrestrictive (whose) clause The song writerwhose artistic work stretched over decades, acknowledged the standing ovation.


Don’t fret. When you finish reading this section and the eBook Developing a Powerful Writing Style, you’ll be an ace at distinguishing between that, which, who, whom, and whose, and at figuring out when you need a comma and when you don’t.


Previous: Adjectival Phrases

Next: A Summary of Adjectives

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Have a discussion about this article with the community:

  • Aaren Cegast
    Aaren Cegast
    Great explanation. Thank you.
    LikeReply5 years ago
  • Bounnhot Vongboupha
    Bounnhot Vongboupha
    very useful for my students
    LikeReply 27 years ago
    • STANDS4
      Great, good to hear that Bounnhot!
      LikeReply7 years ago
  • Andrew Uchai
    Andrew Uchai
    Great. Clearly explained and makes it easy to understand the difference.
    LikeReply 28 years ago


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