Debated Problems within the Theory of the Phrase

There are several debated problems within the theory of the phrase. Most essential are the predicative character of the phrase, the problem of criteria of classifying phrases, the number of elements within a phrase.

Most scholars hold that every combination of two or more words which is a grammatical unit constitutes a phrase: hot weather, very hot, at least, on account of.

We can distinguish phrases comprising notional and functional words (N+N Algebra problem, A+N wise teacher, V+ D run quickly, A+ D very quickly, etc.). They are grammatical units; each constituent of a phrase can undergo different grammatical changes. The grammatical variation of a phrase constitutes its paradigm ( to read a book, to be reading a book, to have been reading a book, etc.).

There are phrases equivalent to prepositions, these are prepositional phrases( instead of). There are also conjunctional phrases (as long as, as soon as). We are to discriminate between analytical forms of words and phrases. To write a letter is a phrase , while would have been writing is the analytical form ofthe word write).

Home scholars hold that a phrase is a non-predicative unit, its more like a word, as it names actions, things, qualities (very beautiful), it names also qualities of qualities (very quickly); they believe that predication is the prerogative of a sentence.

Western scholars make no difference between subject-predicate combinations and non-predicative combinations, calling both phrases (John runs away, to run away).

Classifications of Phrases

Henry Sweet classified phrases according to the relations between the head and the adjunct. These relations are of logical and grammatical subordination. He distinguished the following degrees of subordination:- apposition (adjoinment)(Prince Hamlet), agreement (concord) ( these books), government (to see a film). So the criterion, underlying this classification, the degree of subordination.

Otto Jespersen introduced the theory of ranks to understand the hierarchy of elements in a phrase. Elements are not of the same footing, they function as primaries, secondaries and tertiaries. The rank of the element depends on its position. One and the same element can be a primary and a secondary: an exquisitely lovely dress; a vast country and a country doctor ( III II I; II I; II I). We see that the word country can be a primary and a secondary. Prof. Kruizinga distinguished close and loose syntactic groups. In a close group there is a syntactically leading element( poor John, very fragile). In a loose group both elements are independent of each other ( ladies and gentlemen). According to the number of constituents, syntactic groups are divided into double, triple and multiple groups.

Leonard Bloomfield, using the procedure of substitution, identified phrases according to their functioning in larger structures into endocentric and exocentric ones. An endocentric phrase functions as its head constituent (Very fresh milk is on the table = Milk is on the table, students and teachers = students and teachers are in the hall). An exocentric phrase doesnt function as any of its constituents (In the house; John runs away; by running away). None of their elements can replace the whole phrase in a larger structure. Both types of phrases were further subdivided by Bloomfield into subclasses according to their structure. Endocentric phrases are divided into coordinate ones with elements being on the same footing ( girls and boys) and subordinate ones (character-substance phrases: poor John). As to exocentric phrases the relations within them are more diverse. We see here predicative (actor-action) phrases (John runs away), connective phrases ( with John, in the house). Though Bloomfields classification was generally recognised in western linguistics, it was still criticised for the discrepancy between the initial (function) and the subsequent (structure) principles of classification. An exocentric phrase is criticised for being a catch-all, as it comprises everything that cannot find place in a better organised endocentric phrase.

Classifications of phrases are based on the presence or absence of the head word. Most scholars divide phrases into headed (poor John), non-headed (in the house).There exist classifications proceeding from the grammatical characteristics of the head word: a nounal phrase (a red rose), a verbal phrase (to run quickly), an adjectival phrase (very beautiful), an adverbial phrase (very coldly), a prepositional phrase (in front of), a conjunctional phrase (as long as). There exists classifications based on coordination or subordination (husband and wife; his pretty wife).There exists a classification based on derivatability/non-derivatability. Some phrases can be derived from a sentence, some cannot be derived (the composition of light music <- He composes light music; the blooming flowers <- The flowers bloom).The phrases of the type in the house, a woman with her children cannot be derived from sentences. This classification was advanced in transformational grammar, which studies correlations between a phrase and a sentence. A sentence can be transformed into a phrase and vice versa. So we see that attributive relations develop on the basis of predicative relations (a new car < the car is new). Non-derivative phrases are phrases with determiners (articles, numerals) ( several of my friends) The nominal phrases of the type young Jolyon, a perfect fool are non-derivative ones as the adjectives underlined serve as intensifiers and specifiers. They do not predicate.

Prof. V.V. Burlakova distinguishes phrases into kernels and non-kernels. In a kernel phrase the function of its central element cant be identified. In the phrase a beautiful girl we dont know whether a girl is a subject or an object. The elements of a non-kernel phrase have the same footing ( ladies and gentlemen). Prof. M.Y. Blokh distinguishes syntagmatic groupings of 3 types: autosemantic groupings, consisting of notional words (a beautiful girl), they dont depend upon the context; synsemantic groupings, carrying one notional and one functional word (for fear of, at the expense of,) they depend on the context; functional groupings (from within). Functional are conjunctional prepositional phrases. They are analogous to functional words used as connectors and specifiers.

Using the oppositional method we can distinguish the following structural varieties of phrases: headed non-headed, kernel non-kernel, derivative not derivative, endocentric exocentric, coordinate subordinate, loose close, predicative non-predicative, independently predicative dependently predicative (his being a bachelor), autosemantic synsemantic.



  1. A. How would you personally start job hunting? Use the phrases in the box to help you.
  2. And write your own sentences with the same words and phrases.
  3. B) Explain the difference between the synonyms within each pair. (See Notes on p. 18.) When in doubt, consult dictionaries.
  4. B) Give a short description of some other disease using a few phrases from the text above.
  5. B. Describe the pictures. Use the suggested phrases.
  6. B. Listen to part of a radio interview with a historian talking about Einstein. Then complete each sentence with a word or a short phrase. (Track 17, CD2)
  7. B. Match the definitions with the italicized words and phrases from the text.
  8. C Complete this extract from a company report with appropriate words or phrases from the box in Exercise B.
  9. Classification of phraseological units and their structural types.
  11. Communicative Dynamism within a Composite Sentence( Compound and Complex) and a Supra-phrasal Unit.
  12. Complete each sentence with one of the words or phrases below.

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