In contrast to modifiers, which are optional, complements are required to complete the meaning of a sentence or a part of a sentence.
In Examples and Observations (below), you will find discussions of two common types of complements: subject complements (which follow the verb be and other linking verbs) and object complements (which follow a direct object). But as David Crystal has observed, "the domain of complementation remains an unclear area in linguistic analysis, and there are several unresolved issues" (Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 2011).
- Practice in Identifying Subject and Object Complements
- Commonly Confused Words: Complement and Compliment
- Complement Clause
- Light Verb
- Predicate Nominative
- Predicative Adjective
Etymology:From the Latin, "to fill out"
Examples and Observations:
- My uniform is torn and dirty.
- My uniform is a T-shirt and jeans.
- "Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality."
(Jules de Gaultier)
- "Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke."
- "Libel actions, when we look at them in perspective, are an ornament of a civilized society."
(Henry Anatole Grunwald)
- Multiple Meanings of Complement
"Complement is one of the most confusing terms in scientific grammar. Even in one grammar, that of Quirk et al. (1985), we can find it being used in two ways:
a) as one of the five so-called 'clause elements' (1985: 728), (alongside subject, verb, object and adverbial):In other grammars, this second meaning is extended to other phrases. . . . It therefore appears to have very broad reference, to anything that is needed to complete the meaning of some other linguistic unit. . . .
(20) My glass is empty. (subject complement)
(21) We find them very pleasant. (object complement)
b) as a part of a prepositional phrase, the part that follows the preposition (1985: 657):
(22) on the table
"These two basic meanings of complement are neatly discussed in Swan [see below]."
(Roger Berry, Terminology in English Language Teaching: Nature and Use. Peter Lang, 2010)
"The word 'complement' is also used in a wider sense. We often need to add something to a verb, noun, or adjective to complete its meaning. If somebody says I want, we expect to hear what he or she wants; the words the need obviously don't make sense alone; after hearing I'm interested, we may need to be told what the speaker is interested in. Words and expressions which 'complete' the meaning of a verb, noun, or adjective are also called 'complements.'
- I want a drink, and then I want to go home.
- Does she understand the need for secrecy?
- I'm interested in learning to fly.
(Michael Swan, Practical English Usage. Oxford Univ. Press, 1995)
- Subject Complements
"Subject complements rename or describe the subjects of sentences. In other words, they complement the subjects.
"Many of these complements are nouns, pronouns, or other nominals that rename or provide additional information about the subject of the sentence. They always follow linking verbs. A less contemporary term for a noun, pronoun, or other nominal used as a subject complement is predicate nominative.
He is the boss.In the first example, the subject complement boss explains the subject he. It tells what he is. In the second example, the subject complement winner explains the subject Nancy. It tells what Nancy is. In the third example, the subject complement she renames the subject this. It tells who this is. In the final example, the subject complement they identifies the subject friends. It tells who the friends are.
Nancy is the winner.
This is she.
My friends are they.
"Other subject complements are adjectives that modify the subjects of sentences. They also follow linking verbs. A less contemporary term for an adjective used as a subject complement is predicate adjective.
My coworkers are friendly.In the first example, the subject complement friendly modifies the subject coworkers. In the second example, the subject complement exciting modifies the subject story."
This story is exciting.
(Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Henry Holt, 2004)
- Object Complements
"An object complement always follows the direct object and either renames or describes the direct object. Consider this sentence:
She named the baby Bruce.The verb is named. To find the subject, ask, 'Who or what named?' The answer is she, so she is the subject. Now ask, 'Whom or what did she name?' She named the baby, so baby is the direct object. Any word following the direct object that renames or describes the direct object is an object complement. She named the baby Bruce, so Bruce is the object complement."
(Barbara Goldstein, Jack Waugh, and Karen Linsky, Grammar to Go: How It Works and How to Use It, 4th ed. Wadsworth, 2013)
"The object complement characterizes the object in the same way as the subject complement characterizes the subject: it identifies, describes, or locates the object (as in We chose Bill as group leader, We consider him a fool, She laid the baby in the crib), expressing either its current state or resulting state (as in They found him in the kitchen vs. She made him angry). It is not possible to delete the object complement without either radically changing the meaning of the sentence (e.g. She called him an idiot - She called him) or making the sentence ungrammatical (e.g. He locked his keys in his office - *He locked his keys). Note that be or some other copula verb can often be inserted between the direct object and the object complement (e.g. I consider him to be a fool, We chose Bill to be group leader, They found him to be in the kitchen)."
(Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)