Difference between Phrase and Clause

Clause and phrase are two important terms in English grammar. Clause and phrase, as parts of a sentence, can be defined as: 

 A clause is a group of related words that consists of a subject and a verb.


  • He laughed.
  • The guests arrived.

 A phrase is a group of related words that does not consist of a subject and a verb.

Examples: on a table, under the tree, near the wall, on the roof, at the door.

Both the clause and the phrase generally exist in a same sentence.


  • He is sleeping in the bed.

The first part of above sentence ‘He is sleeping’ is a clause because it has a subject as well as a verb. On the other hand, the remaining part of the sentence ‘in the bed’ is a phrase because it lacks both the subject and the verb.

Before discussing the conceptual difference between clause and phrase, read a few more examples (as follows) where red part is a clause, and the blue part is phrase.

  • He is standing on the roof.
  • The cat is sleeping under the table.
  • She is drawing a map on the wall.
  • He is waiting at the door.

  Understanding the conceptual difference in clause and phrase

A clause has a subject as well as a verb. It can stand alone as a complete sentence because it can (as alone part) give complete meaning. Look at the example (He is sleeping in the bed). In this example, the part ‘He is sleeping’ can stand alone as a sentence because it gives a complete meaning (even without the remaining part of the sentence).

On the other hand, a phrase cannot stand alone as a sentence because it (as alone part) cannot give a complete meaning or sense. Look at the same example (He is sleeping in the bed). In this sentence, the part ‘in the bed’ cannot stand alone as a sentence because it (without the remaining part) cannot express a complete sense. Each word of a phrase has a meaning, but it does not collectively make sense like a sentence. The purpose of a phrase is simply to complement the structure of a sentence. A phrase generally consists of a preposition (e.g., at, on, in, to) and an article (a, an, the) and a noun (e.g., table, wall, or other noun).

Unlike a phrase, the clause expresses a complete idea because it has a subject as well as a verb. Therefore, a clause can also be called a simple sentence. For instance, ‘He laughed’ is a clause but also a simple sentence. This means that a sentence must have at least one clause.

However, a sentence can have more than one clause. Such a sentence is called a compound or complex sentence where different clauses are joined by conjunctions such as but, and, who, which, because, etc. See the following examples.

  • I waited for him, but he did not come. (two clauses).
  • He bought a red shirt, but I bought a white shirt because it was cheaper. (three clauses)
  • I like biology because I want to become a doctor, but my friend likes physics because he wants to become a doctor. (four clauses).

The next part here is important because this is where students get confused about the difference between a clause and a phrase. See the following example.

  • He was sitting on a table.
In the above example, ‘He was sitting’ is a clause and ‘on a table’ is a phrase. However, in some cases the phrase may also be viewed as part of the clause. This is because a clause is defined as 1) a group of related words, and 2) this group of related words must include the subject and the verb. This means that all the related words (e.g., subject, verb, preposition, article, object) can constitute a clause, where the subject and object are its compulsory parts. The definition necessitates subject and verb as parts of the clause so that the other related words (linked to subject and verb) can be identified and the group of all related words (as a whole) can be called a clause. For this reason, the clause is also sometimes defined as combination of a subject and a predicate (words of sentence other than the subject).

This is where the students normally get confused because a clause is generally (in initial lessons of school) reduced to smallest part of sentence (only the subject and verb) so the new learners can learn the term ‘clause’ easily. However, according to the definition a clause can include all the related words along with the subject and verb. This does not mean that the phrase within the clause remain no more a phrase. For instance, if we view the above example (He was sitting on a table) as a clause, the part ‘on a table’ is still a phrase within the clause.

The above understanding of the term ‘clause’ is important because the purpose of learning clauses is to distinguish groups of related words (within a compound sentence) as different clauses and to understand the structure of the compound sentence. A compound sentence has more than one clause where each clause may have its own linked phrase.

  • I waited for him at the library, but he was sitting in the classroom.

In the above example ‘at the library’ and ‘in the classroom’ are phrases for the first and second clause (highlighted as red) respectively.

However, while identifying clauses within a compound sentence, the phrase part may also be viewed as a part of the clause. First, this is because how the term clause is defined – a group of related words having a subject as well as a verb. Second, in a compound sentence, one clause may be dependent on another clause to give complete meaning or sense. Therefore, each clause in a compound sentence should be considered in its entirety (including all words linked to the subject and verb) in order understand the structure of the sentence and to understand how different parts (as clauses) of the sentences interact with one another.