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Do you remember your English teacher telling you to not learn words separately, but to learn them in a phrase? Well, this is absolutely correct and helpful to improving not only your vocabulary, but also your fluency in English. We shall look into the concept of a phrase in this lesson. In general, phrases are groups of words that are remembered as a group. 

Phrases are sequences of words that make up a grammatical construction and functions as a unit. The aspect that makes them different to clauses and sentences is the fact that they generally do not contain a finite verb. A finite verb is the one that you have to change (i.e. conjugate) in a sentence, according to the subject - the one that gives you trouble when you forget to put the 's' at the end for (s)he.

Another term for a phrase is 'an expression', 'an idiom' or a 'locution', but there are some differences between them, as you shall see below:

  • "It's raining cats and dogs" (idiom)
  • "at the top of (prepositional! phrase)
  • "chairman of the board" (noun phrase)
  • "by the end of the day" (adverbial phrase)

What's the difference?

The common phrase 'idioms and phrases' refers to commonly used groups of words in English - the ones you usually find in dictionaries as part of the definition of more important words.

Idioms are used in informal situations, whereas phrases may also be rather formal. Learning idioms and phrases is an important part of learning English as it's common to string phrases together rather than individual words. These idioms and phrases are used in specific situations and often used in an idiomatic, rather than a figurative sense.

Another difference is that idioms are often full sentences. Phrases, however, are usually made up of a few words and are used as a grammatical unit in a sentence, as you've seen in the examples above.

There are some very good courses out there for learning idioms, but what is more important if you're taking your study seriously is to be able to understand how a phrase is 'put together' and how it links to the rest on the sentence in which it sits as part of the meaning of that complete sentence.

For you to thoroughly understand this and to become flexible in using them in your writing and in speaking, you only need to add phrases to your vocabulary lists and to practice regularly, just as you do with your newly acquired words.

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