SLTinfo logo


The function of phrases within clauses

We know that phrases may combine to construct larger units such as the following:

phrase 1 phrase 2 phrase 3

the big boy

had hugged

the cowering frightened dog

These larger units (e.g. the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog) are known as clauses.

Phrases function differently in different clauses. There are five functions: (1) subject, (2) verb, (3) object, (4) adjunct, and (5) complement. [These are summarized below but further details can be found in the article The Function of Phrases within Clauses.]


The subject (S) is often the thing or person performing the action. So, in the above example of the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog the subject is the big boy, i.e. it is the (big) boy who had performed the action of hugging.


The verb (V) describes actions that are instigated by someone or some animate being, events that happen, or the state people or things are in. So, in the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog the verb is represented by the verb phrase had hugged. This consists of the auxiliary verb had and the past tense of the lexical verb hug (i.e. hugged). This, therefore, describes the action performed by the boy.


The Object (O) is frequently the thing undergoing an action. In the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog the object is the cowering frightened dog, i.e. it is the (cowering frightened) dog that undergoes the action of hugging.


The adjunct (A) provides additional circumstantial information about the time, location, manner, or cause of an action, event or state. Adjuncts are usually optional elements, as their removal does not usually make a clause ungrammatical. There is no adjunct in the clause the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog. However, if we were to say the big boy had hugged the cowering frightened dog softly then the adverb softly functions as an adjunct. In this instance, it provides additional information related to manner, i.e. it specifies how the action of hugging was performed.


A Complement (C) refers to the same thing as the subject of a clause. For example, in the clause Dawn seems happy, the adjective happy refers to the subject Dawn, i.e. it is Dawn that is happy. Similarly, in the clause this book is terrible, the subject is this book and the complement is the adjective terrible, as terrible refers directly to the subject. i.e. it is the book that is terrible.

Clause structure

The various functions of phrases can, therefore, be combined to create the larger clauses. Again, however, there are sequencing rules which govern how they may be combined. In English, seven basic clause structures are identifiable. These are shown in Table 1, with examples.

clause structure example clause
Subject Verb SV the bride smiled
Subject Verb Object SVO the bride kissed her husband
Subject Verb Adjunct SVA the bride smiled happily
Subject Verb Complement SVC the bride seemed happy
Subject Verb Object Complement SVOC the wedding made the bride happy
Subject Verb Object Adjunct SVOA the bride kissed her husband tenderly
Subject Verb Object Object SVOO the bride gave her husband a kiss

Table 1. Clause Structure of English

These structures represent the major clause types in English. Nevertheless, because language is so flexible, we do find variations of these clauses.

[Further details can be found in the article Clause Structure.]

Rank order

We have seen that each higher order unit of organization in language is constituted from elements of the immediately lower unit of organization. We see that morphemes combine into words, that words combine into phrases and that phrases combine into clauses. There is, therefore, a rank order to the organization of clauses:




the uninterrupted games may stop shortly


the uninterrupted games

may stop




















Table 2. Rank Order in English Clauses

The clause complex

It should be apparent that clauses may also combine into larger units. There are several ways to do this but a simple method is to use a so-called conjunction to conjoin clauses. For example one could lengthen utterances with and as follows:

clause 1


clause 2

the boy hugged the dog


the girl hugged the cat

When two or more clauses combine to form a longer utterance, we refer to the new combination as a clause complex. Note that we are not referring to sentences here, as we are concerned with spoken language (i.e. spoken utterances): sentences are a phenomenon of written and not spoken language – and, arguably, the grammar of spoken language is different from that of written language.