What’s in a Phrase?


Can a phrase be one word?

A little while ago, I decided to do some light reading (Hermione Granger style) and stuck my nose into It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande.

Such a great title, but I didn’t get very far before I found some areas of contention — not surprising in grammar geekdom. The most glaring is her definition of “phrase.”

In Chapter 3, Ms. Casagrande defines a phrase as “a single word or cluster of words that together work in your sentence as a single part of speech.” In Appendix A, the definition is “a unit of one or more words that function as either a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, or a prepositional phrase.”

This seems pretty straightforward, yet the idea that a phrase can be a single word throws a wrench into the works for me. I’ve looked all over the place — in dictionaries, style books, and grammar texts — and every definition of “phrase” I encounter specifies that it is a group of words. Plural.

“Pshaw, Annette!” you say. “Why concern yourself with such a petty detail?”

I find it hard enough to get people to understand the different parts of speech without complicating things. Ms. Casagrande, in her appendix, gives examples of phrases including regularly (adverb phrase) and enjoy (verb phrase).

Why confuse learners by saying regularly is both an adverb and an adverb phrase? Enjoy (present tense) is a verb; a verb phrase in my mind would be has enjoyed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just being too picky. What do you think?