November 11, 2014

Clause, Phrase, Sentence – Learn the Difference

2 minute read

These three structures are a common part of English, and are all composed of groups of words. Clauses, phrases and sentences are very similar, but they do have different roles. Learning the difference between them will help you make a lot more sense of English grammar, and will be very useful to improve your written English.

What is a phrase?

Words can be grouped together, but without a subject or a verb. This is called a phrase.

Because a phrase has neither subject nor verb, it can’t form a ‘predicate’. This is a structure that must contain a verb, and it tells you something about what the subject is doing.

Phrases can be very short – or quite long. Two examples of phrases are:

“After dinner”

“Waiting for the rain to stop”.

Phrases can’t be used alone, but you can use them as part of a sentence, where they are used as parts of speech.

What is a clause?

Clauses are groups of words that have both subjects and predicates. Unlike phrases, a clause can sometimes act as a sentence – this type of clause is called an independent clause. This isn’t always the case, and some clauses can’t be used on their own – these are called subordinate clauses, and need to be used with an independent clause to complete their meaning.

An example of a subordinate clause is “When the man broke into the house”

An example of an independent clause is “the dog barked at him”

While the independent clause could be used by itself as a complete sentence, the subordinate clause could not. For it to be correct, it would need to be paired with another clause: “When the man broke into the house, the dog barked at him.”

What is a sentence?

A complete sentence has a subject and predicate, and can often be composed of more than one clause. As long as it has a subject and a predicate, a group of words can form a sentence, no matter how short.

E.g. “You ate fish.”

More complex sentences can combine multiple clauses or phrases to add additional information about what is described. Clauses may be combined using conjunctions – such as “and”, “but” and “or”.

E.g. “He went out to dinner but didn’t enjoy the meal.”

This example is composed of two independent clauses, “he went out to dinner” and “he didn’t enjoy the meal”, combined with a conjunction- “but”.

Your turn

While clauses, phrases and sentences might seem very similar at first, on closer look you can start to see how they function very differently. To make sure you use them correctly, it’s important to practice identifying them.

Try reading different materials, and spotting the phrases, clauses and complete sentences in a piece of text. Then try to write your own examples of them! And if you would like to learn English with people from all over the world - check out our range of language courses abroad at