The Grammatical Hierarchy: Words, Phrases, Clauses, and Sentences


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Words, phrases, clauses, and sentences constitute what is called the GRAMMATICAL HIERARCHY. We can represent this schematically as follows:

consist of one or more...

consist of one or more

consist of one or more...


Sentences are at the top of the hierarchy, so they are the largest unit which we will be considering (though some grammars do look beyond the sentence). At the other end of the hierarchy, words are at the lowest level, though again, some grammars go below the word to consider morphology, the study of how words are constructed.

At the clause level and at the phrase level, two points should be noted:

1. Although clauses are higher than phrases in the hierarchy, clauses can occur within phrases, as we've already seen:

The man who lives beside us is ill

Here we have a relative clause who lives beside us within the NP the man who lives beside us.

2. We've also seen that clauses can occur within clauses, and phrases can occur within phrases.

Bearing these two points in mind, we can now illustrate the grammatical hierarchy using the following sentence:

My brother won the lottery

As a means of illustrating the grammatical hierarchy, the labelled brackets we have used here have at least one major drawback. You've probably noticed it already -- they are very difficult to interpret. And the problem becomes more acute as the sentence becomes more complex. For this reason, linguists prefer to employ a more visual method, the TREE DIAGRAM.


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