How Do You Correctly Use Introductory Phrases in Writing?
An introductory phrase sets the stage for an independent clause, briefly introducing the main idea. An introductory phrase never stands alone. It’s always part of a larger thesis statement, placed at the beginning of a sentence to signal that the core message is still to come.
As a writer or an editor, you need to have a solid understanding of introductory phrases and how they function in a text’s larger context. This article provides the basic information you need to know about introductory phrases, including:
- What is an introductory phrase?
- Introductory phrases vs. clauses
- Types of introductory phrases
- Should you use commas after introductory phrases?
What is an introductory phrase?
An introductory phrase occurs at the start of a sentence, serving as a precursor to the sentence’s key message. It introduces the reader to the rest of the sentence, setting up a transition and signaling that the sentence’s most important information is still to come.
An introductory phrase doesn’t have a subject and a verb, so it can never stand alone and is always part of a larger sentence. The phrase may have a subject or a verb, but it will never have both.
Introductory phrases vs. clauses
The main difference between an introductory phrase and a clause is that an introductory phrase doesn’t have a subject and a verb. In contrast, a clause consists of a group of words that can have both a subject and a verb.
For clarity, we provide some examples of introductory phrases (the bolded introductory words in the complete sentence).
- According to experts, you should get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
- In the United States, most people don’t get enough sleep.
- At the end of the day, people who don’t sleep enough will be exhausted.
As you can see, additional information is needed for each sentence to make sense. The introductory element is still useful and provides context, but it isn’t a complete thought on its own. The reader needs to continue to the end of a sentence to get the full meaning.
Now, compare the above examples to the below examples of introductory dependent clauses (in bold).
- After I drank coffee, I struggled to get enough sleep.
- Because I wanted to improve my sleep, I decided to cut back on caffeine.
- Since I like to sip a hot drink before bed, I have chamomile tea.
As you can see, introductory clauses always have a subject and a verb. In contrast, introductory phrases don’t have a subject and verb combination.
Types of introductory phrases
Now that you know the basic definition of an introductory phrase, it’s time to get into greater detail. Understanding the different types of introductory phrases can help you master their usage in writing and editing.
Introductory prepositional phrases
An introductory prepositional phrase starts with a preposition (i.e., a word that expresses a relation to another word or concept) and is usually combined with a noun or pronoun phrase. Prepositions include “after,” “of,” “on,” “at,” “in,” and other modifying words.
An introductory prepositional phrase usually appears before the main part of the sentence and is followed by a comma. Here are a couple of examples:
- At the beginning of the soccer game, it was raining.
- In the process of playing the game, the players got very muddy.
Introductory infinitive phrase
An introductory infinitive phrase begins with “to” and contains a verb. It usually provides helpful information or an explanation of why something is happening.
Introductory infinitive phrases are usually followed by a comma. Here are some examples of introductory infinitive phrases in action:
- To get to the school quickly, turn right at the next intersection.
- To get a top score on the test, you’ll have to study hard.
Introductory participial phrase
An introductory participial phrase introduces the main clause of a sentence, providing context to improve comprehension. It’s a type of verb phrase and may or may not have a direct object.
Participial phrases are followed by a comma. Here are a couple of examples for clarity:
- Having eaten his ice cream too quickly, the boy felt sick.
- Rubbing his aching stomach woefully, he wished he had eaten less.
- Waking up late, he wished he had set his alarm.
Introductory absolute phrase
An introductory absolute phrase complements the main clause of a sentence, providing additional context to support the reader’s understanding of what’s going on. The phrase usually provides more detail about why or how something is happening.
Introductory absolute phrases are set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Here are a couple of examples:
- Although the cat was feeling sick, it remained very active.
- Speaking with a voice full of concern, the veterinarian said that surgery was needed.
Introductory appositive phrase
An introductory appositive phrase describes a noun used in the same sentence. It offers the reader additional details and helps paint a more vivid picture.
Introductory appositive phrases should have a comma after them if they are not necessary to understand the sentence’s meaning. If the phrase is necessary for the reader to understand the sentence, it doesn’t need a comma.
Here are a couple of examples:
Should you use commas after introductory phrases?
In most cases, you should use a comma after an introductory phrase. However, as is often the case with English grammar, there are exceptions to the rule!
Here are some instances where you shouldn’t use a comma after an introductory phrase.
When it’s a restrictive appositive phrase
An appositive phrase is restrictive (or “essential”) if it serves to specify the word it’s modifying. A restrictive appositive phrase often narrows down the topic, specifying “which one” to the reader. If an introductory phrase is restrictive, a comma isn’t used to separate it from the main clause.
Here’s an example: “My friend Jessica Jones is an Olympic medalist.” The phrase “Jessica Jones” specifies “which friend.” It’s a restrictive appositive phrase and doesn’t require a comma.
After a prepositional phrase of fewer than 5 words
A comma isn’t always necessary after a prepositional phrase that’s less than five words. In this case, the comma can interrupt the reader’s flow and doesn’t add any relevant clarity that makes it necessary.
Here’s an example: “On average people sleep seven hours per night.” While you could add a comma after the word “average,” it can clutter up an otherwise short, concise, and clear sentence.
To separate the subject from the predicate
The subject is the part of a sentence that takes action. The predicate is the part of a sentence that contains the verb, specifying what that action is. You don’t want to separate the subject of the sentence from the predicate.
Don’t use a comma if adding a comma after your starting words separates the subject from the predicate. Here’s an example: “Completing the racecourse in the fastest time possible is the goal of the runner.” A comma after “possible” isn’t appropriate since this isn’t really an introductory phrase. Although it may look like a rather long phrase, it is simply the subject of the sentence.
Apply your good grammar skills to become a better writer or editor
Introductory phrases may seem simple at first. However, things can get more complicated and nuanced as you get into the finer details of combining parts of speech. Luckily, tools like style guides and grammar books can help. Get familiar with valuable resources writers and editors use to hone their craft.
If you’re just getting started as an editor or a writer, you’ll want to master these skills. Positioning yourself as an expert in the complexities of grammar usage can help you excel in your field, stand out from the competition, and win more clients.
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