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Can one word form a phrase?

For example:

Man is mortal.

There is no modifier. So, here is there any phrase?

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    Of course, that's a verb phrase! But it's also three words, so it's not so clear what you're asking
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:55
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    @curiousdannii OP is clearly talking about the subject man, not the whole clause. The clue is in the title! Nov 26, 2023 at 14:00
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    The answer varies depending on the approach. In school grammar, the answer is "no". A single word is just a word, not a phrase; in order to have a phrase, you need to have two or more words. In contrast, the answer is "yes" in many university syntax courses, where a more articulated understanding of sentence structure is put forward. Personally, I prefer the school grammar approach, but my stance is a minority position among syntacticians. Nov 27, 2023 at 1:41
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    @Tim I disagree that the ODEG definition excludes individual words. It says phrases are units at a level between the word and the clause, not at a length between the word and the clause. The fact that phrases are at a higher syntactic level than individual words does not mean that an individual word can’t make up a phrase – that’s the basic concept of a phrase. The NODE definition is entirely useless; it would exclude very long phrases (not a ‘small’ group of words), but include completely unrelated adjacent words (only ‘typically’ forming a component of the clause). Dec 27, 2023 at 15:20
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    Fromkin’s and Cambridge are of course entirely fine if you accept “sequences” and “groups” of one element. This is a very common understanding of these words in technical definitions.
    – Keelan
    Dec 28, 2023 at 8:52

2 Answers 2

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In Generative Syntax, specifically "X-bar theory", a phrase is (or was) defined as the "maximal projection" of a category feature. The idea is that a word which takes a complement or a modifier covers the whole unit with its category feature because they behave as a group. That's why "the old man in the grey coat" is called a noun phrase, just like "the man". Whatever the size of this nominal group, it can function as the subject of a clause, in combination with a verb and hence, a VP. As a consequence, a single word (like "people") is also a phrase, because its category feature, N, simply does not extend any farther. A single word can be "maximal" if no further projection of the category feature occurs before it is used as a complement of some other head. In this theory, any item that functions as a complement or a modifier, must be considered a phrase, no matter how big or small it is.

Theories of grammar differ, however, in the extent to which they rely on the notion of a phrase. So you might get other answers in other theories.

(Sorry for not providing literature in English; the above is found in German in https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrase_(Linguistik)#Phrasen_tragen_Kategoriemerkmale but the references there are all German textbooks).

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  • The answer to the OP's question is simply, yes: a phrase can consist of a single word, i.e. just a head. We don't need generative grammar or X-bar theory to tell us that.
    – BillJ
    Nov 27, 2023 at 8:59
  • I have seen people from dependency grammar answering "no" to the same question. So it seems to be theory-dependent.
    – Alazon
    Nov 27, 2023 at 10:41
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    @BillJ What Alazon said above. For evidence see Tim Osborne (dependency grammarian)'s comment under the Q. Nov 28, 2023 at 18:24
  • @Araucaria-him? I'm agreeing with Alazon, but saying that we don't need to invoke arcane theoretical concepts and formalisms to establish an answer to the OP's very simple question.
    – BillJ
    Nov 29, 2023 at 12:58
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    Every answer should be based on some foundation, don't you think? "Phrase" is a theoretical concept, so any answer will presuppose some theory, even if it happens to be a naive theory...
    – Alazon
    Nov 29, 2023 at 13:24
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"Socrates is mortal" and "Man is mortal" are standard examples in introductions to classical logic. There is hardly any doubt that these form valid propositions.

The unusual syntax ("So, here is there") and, let's say, this being the internet where foreign speakers are in the majority, it seems very liky that OP is not a native speaker and that they have a different itch to scratch, in case of a GTP bot not a speaker of any language most likely.

Therefore it is nonsense to bicker about the definition of "phrase".

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    Huh? How does that answer contribute in any meaningful way? The OP question is good because it is drawing attention to a disconnect in how the term phrase is understood inside and outside of linguistics. Dec 27, 2023 at 23:06
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    The OP is not in any meaningful way drawing attention to the defintion of "phrase" as a phrase, as a word, or anything, outside the quoted example of "Man is mortal".
    – vectory
    Dec 27, 2023 at 23:35
  • I understood the OP's question immediately. I think most people who have studied syntax will do so. They recognize that how a layperson understands and uses the term "phrase" is different form how most grammarians use the term. Dec 28, 2023 at 2:57
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    The question is immediately understandable. This answer – or at least its relation to the question – is not understandable in any way. Dec 28, 2023 at 11:15
  • @JanusBahsJacquet you have also argued that "The fact that phrases are at a higher syntactic level than individual words" (above in comments) so it's immediately clear why you can't understand this answer.
    – vectory
    Dec 29, 2023 at 22:10

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