Which 5 phrase functions do English clauses have?

This is the first of two lessons about Phrase Functions. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Introduce the concept of phrase functions in English grammar

– Explore each of the five phrase functions in turn

– Memorise examples which typify subjects, objects, predicators, adverbials and complements

Lesson 1

In this short two-lesson introductory course on phrase functions, we take a brief look at this aspect of English grammar from both a general and academic perspective. In Lesson 1, we introduce and compare the five phrase functions available to writers and provide their most common rules and forms. Then, in Lesson 2, we analyse an excerpt of an academic essay, deconstructing each clause into its respective functions to highlight to students their frequency and combination. For any student that wishes to look more specifically at these five functions, please visit our courses on subjects and objects, predicators, and adverbials and complements.

How do clauses and sentences differ?

Before we can deconstruct a clause into its various phrases and functions, it’s important that students are aware of the common differences between clauses and sentences in English grammar. If you’ve taken any of our courses on sentence structure, then you should already be aware that sentences are made of clauses and that a sentence may have one or many clauses in total. In short:


  • simple sentences are made of one independent clause
  • compound sentences require two independent clauses
  • complex sentences have one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses
  • compound-complex sentences combine the features of compound and complex sentences


A clause then is a collection of words that has, at a minimum, an explicit subject and an associated predicator (verb phrase). Clauses may be joined together using coordinating conjunctions (and; for; yet), subordinating conjunctions (although; because; even though) and conjunctive adverbs (furthermore; however; therefore). It is therefore clear that the compound-complex sentence from our previous set of examples has four clauses because it possesses four subjects and four predicators:

What are phrases and phrase functions?

Armed with an understanding of how sentences are composed of clauses, it’s next important to understand how clauses may be subdivided into five types of phrase. These five types each possess a different function within the clause, and as such are known in grammar literature as phrase (or clause) functions. As the following diagram demonstrates, a clause may comprise one or many words that when combined perform the same function:

1. Subjects

The subject of a clause is one of the most important of all the phrase functions. This is because almost all clauses (besides imperatives) require explicit subjects to be considered grammatical. Subjects are usually:


  • the doer of the action of the verb
  • placed before the predicator in declarative statements
  • placed after the auxiliary verb in interrogative questions
  • composed of nouns and noun phrases

In addition to noun phrases, subjects may be pronouns, phrases, clauses and more:

2. Objects

 Objects are similar to subjects in many ways, except that objects are usually:


  • the receiver of the action of the verb
  • placed after the predicator
  • composed of nouns and noun phrases
  • categorised into direct, indirect and oblique types


Objects can also be composed of a number of clause elements:

3. Predicators

Like subjects, predicators are also mandatory phrase functions within a clause. Predicators are where the action happens: They are the verbs and verb phrases which express what a subject is doing or what state that subject is in. Predicates may be composed of one verb or many (such as modal verbs, auxiliary verbs and participles) and are modifiable by tense, aspect, modality and passive voice:

4. Adverbials

The primary function of an adverbial is to provide optional information to the main verb of an expression, although adverbial phrases may provide information about adjectives, other adverbs, prepositional phrases and whole sentences too. In short, adverbials add to the meaning of these varied word types by expressing how, when, where, how often or to what extent:

While adverbials are most often represented in English by adding adverbs to a clause, adverb phrases, noun phrases, prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses are also possible elements that can express the adverbial function:

5. Complements

The final phrase function is the complement. While adverbials most commonly provide additional (optional) information about a verb using adverbs, complements function to instead modify the subject or object of a given expression through the addition of words, phrases or clauses. This is commonly done by either equating that subject or object with a similar label or by providing it with extra information:

To see all five of these phrase functions in the context of an authentic academic essay, continue studying with Lesson 2 of this short course.

1 of 2 Lessons Completed


Once you’ve completed both lessons in this short course about Phrase Functions, you might then wish to download our Lesson Worksheets to check your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Lesson 1 explores the topic: Which 5 phrase functions do English clauses have? Our Lesson 1 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

Lesson 2 explores the topic: Does academic English use all 5 phrase functions? Our Lesson 2 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

To save yourself 1 Mark, click on the button below to gain unlimited access to all of our Phrase Functions Lesson Worksheets. This All-in-1 Pack includes every lesson, activity and answer key related this topic in one handy and professional PDF.


There are currently no PowerPoint activities, additional teacher resources or audio and video recordings created for this topic. Please come back again next semester.


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