Verb Complements

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Understanding Basic Verb Complements

The term COMPLEMENT refers collectively to any and all grammatical structures that are required by a verb to make a grammatically complete sentence.

Our aim in this study is to address the verbs that take no complements at all (zero-complement verbs) and verbs that take only a single complement. As we proceed, we’ll examine seven types of complements recognized in traditional grammar.

  1. Zero-Complement Verbs

    Verbs that take no complement are called intransitive verbsOpens in new window. (All zero-complement verbs are action verbs. Linking verbs are always used with a single complement.) Here are some examples of sentences with intransitive verbs:

    • The old cow died.
    • My knee hurts.
    • The kids are sleeping.

    Most of the time we use intransitive verbs with various kinds of optional adverb expressions. Survey the following constructions:

    • The old cow finally died during the night.
    • My knee hurts whenever it rains.
    • The kids are sleeping at my cousin’s house tonight.

    It is important to realize that these adverb expressions are not part of the complement. In other words, these verbs do not require these adverb expressions for the sentences to be grammatical. They can be deleted and the sentence still remain complete, hence they are marked out with horizontal line.

  2. Single-Complement Verbs

    Both action verbs and linking verbs can take a single complement. We will address the two types of verbs separately.

    1. Action Verbs and Their Complements

      Traditional grammar has a well-established terminology for the more common complements used with action verbs. Action verbs that have complements are called transitive verbsOpens in new window. Action verbs that have no complements are called intransitive verbs.

      The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is widely recognized. For example, when you look up an action in the dictionary, you will find the following symbols right after the entry: vt or vi. The vt stands for transitive verb; the vi stands for intransitive verb.

      The only trouble with the terms is that it is easy to forget which is which. It may help to know that the terms come from the Latin preposition trans, which means “across.” Trans also appears in the English words transportation and transit.

      A transitive verb “goes across” to its object. An intransitive verb does not “go across” because it does not have any object to go to.

      Here are some examples of intransitive verbs (in bold) to survey:

      • Sam snores.
      • Sally sneezed.
      • The children snickered.
      • All of the flowers wilted in the sun.

      Notice the last example. In the sun is an optional adverb prepositional phrase. Because in the sun is not required by the verb to make a complete sentence, it cannot be a complement. Intransitive verbs can be followed by any number of optional adverbs.

      We will now examine the various types of complements that transitive verbs can be used with.

      1. Objects

        By far the most frequent complement of a transitive verb is a noun phrase (See Noun PhraseOpens in new window). The noun phrase complement of an action verb is called an object. The term direct object is also sometimes used.

        The two terms, object and direct object, are used interchangeably in most contexts. The following are some examples of transitive verbs with objects (transitive verbs in italics, objects in bold):

        • Gretchen met a pie-man, going to the fair.
        • Gretchen bought a pie.
        • Gretchen really liked it.
        • Unfortunately, Gretchen didn’t have any money to pay for it.
      1. Indirect and Direct Objects

        A small but important subgroup of transitive verbs has not one but two objects. For these verbs, it is necessary to distinguish between an indirect object (abbreviated as IO) and a direct object (abbreviated as DO).

        When there are two objects, the indirect object always occurs before the direct object. The following are some examples with both object noun phrases underlined and labeled:

        • Sally gave the boss→ (IO) her report→ (DO).
        • John got the kids→ (IO) some pizza→(DO).

        When a sentence contains only a single object (as is the case with most transitive verbs), that object can also be called a direct object. However, an indirect object can never be used as the sole object in a sentence. That is, we can only have an indirect object when there is also a direct object.

        Sentences with indirect objects have a somewhat peculiar feature that makes indirect objects (relatively) easy to identify.

        The “to/for” Test for Indirect Objects 

        An indirect object can be turned into a prepositional phrase beginning with either to or for (depending on the verb). That prepositional phrase is then moved after the direct object.

        The following is the to/for test applied to the two preceding example sentences:

        • Sally gave the boss→ (IO) her report→ (DO).
        • to/for test: Sally gave her report to the boss.

        • John got the kids→ (IO) some pizza→(DO).
        • to/for test: John got some pizza for the kids.

        Notice that in both examples two things have happened: the two noun phrase objects have switched places:

        1. what was the indirect object now follows the original direct object;
        2. and the preposition to or for has been inserted in between the two reversed noun phrases.
      2. Objects and Object Complements

        A few action verbs can have an object and an object complement. An object complement is a noun or descriptive adjective that follows an object and refers back to that object. Here are some examples:

        Noun as object complement

        In these examples object complements are in italics, objects in bold.

        • Sally considered John a fool. (a fool = John)
        • The board named him the new vice president for sales. (the new vice president for sales = him)
        • They elected Elaine treasurer. (Elaine = treasurer)
        Descriptive adjectives as object complement

        In these examples object complements are in italics, objects underlined.

        • Keep the room clean. (clean refers to room)
        • They painted the house white. (white refers to house)
        • The jury believed him innocent. (innocent refers to him)
    2. Linking Verbs and Their Complements

      In linking verb sentences, the verb “links” the complement following the linking verb back to the subject. In other words, the complement must give some information about or description of the subject.

      Here are three examples of linking verb sentences:

      • Donald is funny.

        In this sentence, the predicate adjective funny describes Donald’s personality.

      • he novel became a bestseller.

        In this sentence, the noun phrase a bestseller tells us something about the success of the novel.

      • The soup smelled wonderful.

        In this sentence, the predicate adjective wonderful tells us something about the nature of the soup.

      Sometimes linking verbs are compared to equal signs. That is, we can replace the linking verbs with equal signs:

      • Donald = funny
      • the novel = a bestseller
      • the soup = wonderful

      While the analogy of linking verbs to equal signs is not perfect, it does convey a sense of the special relationship between the complement and the subject in sentences with linking verbs. This relationship is completely absent in action verbs.

      Linking verbs can sometimes take an adverb of place or time as their complement. Here are some examples of both kinds of adverbs (linking verbs in italics, complement are underlined):

      Adverb of place complement
      • The picnic is at the beach.
      • Our apartment was on 53rd Street.
      • We were there.
      Adverb of time complement
      • The meeting is at ten.
      • The game is Saturday afternoon.
      • That was then; this is now.

      One of the differences between adverbs of placeOpens in new window and timeOpens in new window as complements of linking verbs and ordinary optional adverbs is that we can never delete complements.

      Complements, by definition, are grammatical structures required by a verb to make a complete sentence. If we delete adverbs that are complements, the resulting sentence will be an ungrammatical fragment.

      Optional adverb modifiers, on the other hand, can always be deleted without affecting the grammaticality of the sentence. Compare the result when we delete the adverbs from the following sentences:

      • The meeting is on the third floor.
      Optional adverb modifier
      • I attended the meeting on the third floor.

      When we try to delete the adverbs from the two different sentences, the deletion of the complement results in an ungrammatical sentence, while the deletion of the optional adverb from the action verb sentence has no effect on the grammaticality of the sentence:

      • The meeting is on the third floor. Χ
      Optional adverb modifier/th>
      • I attended the meeting on the third floor. √
    3. Multiple Verb Complements

      In this segment we will briefly examine (with examples) nine different verb complements that contain two components:

      1. Indirect object (IO) + direct object (DO):
        • Jane gave the boss(→IO) her report (→DO).
      2. Object (Obj) + noun phrase complement (NP Comp):
        • Ralph considers his boss (→Obj) a fool (→NP Comp).
      3. Object (Obj) + adjective complement (Adj Comp):
        • Ralph considers his boss (→Obj) foolish (→Adj Comp).
      4. Object (Obj) + adverb of place (Adv of Pl):
        • I put the box(→Obj) on the table (→Adv of Pl).
      5. Object (Obj) + “that” clause:
        • I told him (→Obj) that his plan was very risky (“that” clause).
      6. “To” phrase + “that” clause:
        • I mentioned to him (→to phrase) that we needed to leave soon(→that clause).
      7. Object (Obj) + infinitive (Inf)
        • Ralph expected the office (→Obj) to be empty on a Sunday morning (Inf).
      8. Object (Obj) + base form:

        • He made me (→Obj) do it (Base form).
      9. Object (Obj) + present participle:
        • The teacher caught several students (Obj) cheating on the exam (Pres Part).
    4. Summary of Verb Complements in Traditional Grammar

      The following is a summary, with examples, of the seven types of complements recognized in traditional grammar. There are two complement types used with linking verbs and five complement types with action verbs (counting the option of having no complement as one of the possibilities). Again, the verbs are in italics, and complements are underlined:

      1. Linking Verb Complements (Subject Complements):

        1. Predicate nominative

          A noun phrase that must refer back to the subject.

          • Larry became a football coach.
        2. Predicate adjective

          A descriptive adjective that must refer back to the subject.

          • Larry was aggressive.
      2. Action Verb Complements

        1. No complement (an intransitive verb):
          • Rudolph smiled.
        2. Object or direct object (a single noun phrase):
          • Santa fed the reindeer.
        3. Indirect and direct object (two noun phrases)
            Santa gave Rudolph(→IO) a carrot (→DO).
        4. Object and noun phrase (NP) object complement

          Two noun phrases that must refer to the same person or thing:

          • The committee named Senator Blather (→Obj) chair (→NP Obj Comp).
        5. Object and adjective object complement

          Noun phrase object and an adjective that must refer back to the object:

          • The committee believed Senator Blather (→Obj) capable (→Adj Obj Comp).
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  • References
    • English Grammar Drills, Mark Lester, 2009: English Grammar Drills Simple Verb Complements (pg 10:148-157) By The McGraw-Hill Companies.

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