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Phrase vs. Term: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Published on November 14, 2023
A phrase is a group of words without a subject-verb component, whereas a term is a word or phrase with a specific definition in a particular context.

Key Differences

A phrase is a sequence of two or more words arranged in a grammatical construction and acting as a unit in a sentence. It does not contain a subject and a predicate of its own. A term, however, is a word or expression used in relation to a particular subject, often to signify a concept with specific boundaries and meaning in that field.
Phrases serve as components of grammar, which can function as a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective within sentences. They provide additional information about subjects, objects, or actions but do not stand alone. Terms, on the other hand, are used to define and explain concepts, as in legal terms, mathematical terms, or technical terms, and they can stand alone as the representation of a singular idea.
In literature, a phrase is a part of a sentence that adds to the narrative without the necessity of having a definitive meaning outside the context of the passage. Terms carry definitive meanings that transcend specific sentences and are used to convey clear, precise concepts, especially in academic, legal, and technical discourses.
A phrase might be idiomatic, meaning its significance is derived from its use in language rather than its literal meaning. Terms are typically literal; their importance is not idiomatic but rooted in their defined explanation within a particular discipline.
Understanding phrases involves recognizing their role in the syntactic structure of a sentence, while understanding terms requires knowing the specific definition or concept they represent in their particular context.

Comparison Chart


A group of words without a subject-verb pair
A word or expression with a specific definition


Part of a sentence structure
Represents a specific concept or idea


Cannot stand alone
Can stand alone as a concept


Grammatical construction
Subject-specific meaning


"Under the weather" (idiomatic)
"Velocity" in physics (defined concept)

Phrase and Term Definitions


A group of words.
At the end of the day is a common English phrase.


A word with a specific meaning.
Ecosystem is a term often used in biology.


Part of a sentence.
The phrase running swiftly adds detail to the narrative.


An expression with a defined meaning.
The legal term tort refers to a civil wrong.


An idiomatic expression.
He used the phrase hit the books to mean start studying.


A period of time.
The president is elected for a four-year term.


A musical expression.
The phrase in the melody was hauntingly beautiful.


A condition in an agreement.
The contract outlines the terms of the employment.


A short selection of words.
She could not remember the exact phrase he had used.


A concept in a field of study.
Relative frequency is a term used in statistics.


A sequence of words that have meaning, especially when forming part of a sentence.


A limited or established period of time that something is supposed to last, as a school or court session, tenure in public office, or a prison sentence.


A characteristic way or mode of expression
An apt turn of phrase.


A point in time at which something ends; termination
An apprenticeship nearing its term.


The end of a normal gestation period
Carried the fetus to term.


What is a term?

A word or expression with a specific, defined meaning in a particular context.

Can a phrase be a term?

Yes, if the phrase has a specific, defined meaning within a particular field.

Do terms have to be technical?

Not always, but they often have specific meanings in technical or specialized contexts.

Can a phrase stand alone?

Phrases do not stand alone as complete thoughts; they are part of sentences.

Can a term stand alone?

Yes, terms can stand alone and carry meaning.

What is a phrase?

A group of words that work together as a grammatical unit without containing a subject-verb pairing.

Can a term be a phrase?

Yes, a term can be a single word or a phrase if that phrase has a specialized meaning.

How are phrases used in sentences?

They are used as parts of speech, such as noun phrases or verb phrases.

Can phrases be non-verbal?

Yes, musical phrases are non-verbal.

Are terms always single words?

No, terms can be single words or multi-word expressions.

Is the meaning of a term stable?

Generally, terms have stable meanings within their disciplines.

How are terms used in sentences?

They are used to convey precise meanings or concepts specific to a subject.

Are terms always clear-cut in meaning?

In their specific fields, terms usually have clear, agreed-upon meanings.

Is a phrase more common in everyday language?

Yes, phrases are commonly used in everyday language.

Can the meaning of a phrase change?

Yes, the meaning of phrases can evolve with language use.

Are all phrases idiomatic?

No, not all phrases are idiomatic; some are literal.

What's an example of a term?

"Photosynthesis" is a term used in biology.

Is a term more common in academic language?

Yes, terms are frequently used in academic and specialized language.

Do phrases contribute to a sentence's meaning?

Yes, they add meaning and detail to sentences.

What's an example of a phrase?

"Breaking the ice" is an example of a phrase.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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