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Functions and phrases, complements

13 Functions and Phrases

The syntactic functions which we looked at in the last section -- Subject, Object, Predicate, Adjunct, etc -- are all functions within sentences or clauses. We saw, for instance, that most sentences can be divided into two main functional constituents, the Subject and the Predicate:




[1] The lion


[2] He

writes well

[3] She

enjoys going to the cinema

[4] The girl in the blue dress

arrived late



Within the Predicate, too, constituents perform various functions -- in [3], for example, going to the cinema performs the function of Direct Object, while in [4], late performs the function of Adjunct. In each of these cases, we are referring to the roles which these constituents perform in the sentence or clause.

We can also assign functions to the constituents of a phrase. Recall that we have said that all phrases have the following generalised structure:

(pre-Head string) --- Head --- (post-Head string)

where the parentheses denote optional elements.

In this section, we will consider the functions of these parts of a phrase -- what roles do they perform in the phrase as a whole?

We will begin by looking at functions within verb phrases.

13.1 Complements

Consider the bracketed verb phrase in the following sentence:

David [VP plays the piano]

In formal terms, we can analyse this VP using the familiar three-part structure:


pre-Head string


post-Head string



the piano



Let us now consider the functions of each of these three parts.

Actually, we already know the function of one of the parts -- the word plays functions as the Head of this VP. The term "Head" is a functional label, indicated by the capital (upper case) letter. Remember that we also capitalize the other functions -- Subject, Object, Predicate, etc.

Turning now to the post-Head string the piano, we can see that it completes the meaning of the Head plays. In functional terms, we refer to this string as the COMPLEMENT of the Head. Here are some more examples of Complements in verb phrases:


pre-Head string











what he is doing



In each case, the Complement completes the meaning of the Head, so there is a strong syntactic link between these two strings.

At this point you may be wondering why we do not simply say that these post-Head strings are Direct Objects. Why do we need the further term Complement?

The string which completes the meaning of the Head is not always a Direct Object. Consider the following:

She [VP told me]

Here the post-Head string (the Complement) is an Indirect Object. With ditransitive verbs, two Objects appear:

We [VP gave James a present]

Here, the meaning of the Head gave is completed by two strings -- James and a present. Each string is a Complement of the Head gave.

Finally, consider verb phrases in which the Head is a form of the verb be:

David [VP is a musician]
Amy [VP is clever]
Our car [VP is in the carpark]

The post-Head strings here are neither Direct Objects nor Indirect Objects. The verb be is known as a COPULAR verb. It takes a special type of Complement which we will refer to generally as a COPULAR COMPLEMENT. There is a small number of other copular verbs. In the following examples, we have highlighted the Head, and italicised the Complement:

Our teacher [VP became angry]
Your sister [VP seems upset]
All the players [VP felt very tired] after the game
That [VP sounds great]

It is clear from this that we require the general term Complement to encompass all post-Head strings, regardless of their type. In verb phrases, a wide range of Complements can appear, but in all cases there is a strong syntactic link between the Complement and the Head. The Complement is that part of the VP which is required to complete the meaning of the Head.

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