Understanding clauses

All about clauses

Complement or modifier?

So we've established that verbs determine whether a complement is required. BUT some verbs have different requirements depending on context.

Consider the complements and modifiers in the 'to eat' clauses in the next two snippets:

The next morning, the Cyclops grabbed two more men, smashed their heads against the rocks, and ate them for his breakfast.

Odysseus and the Cyclops (from The Odyssey)HomerSource

While we ate beside a small fire I could hear the dogs on the hill not far away.

Island of the Blue DolphinsScott O'DellSource

If we remove the complement "them" (the thing being eaten) from the first snippet, the sentence doesn't make sense.

But the second snippet doesn't need the complement to make sense. What they are eating isn't important—the snippet is using the verb 'to eat' in a more general sense.

We could add something in that is being eaten:

While we ate breakfast beside a small fire I could hear the dogs on the hill not far away.

Does that mean we should highlight "breakfast" as a modifier in this instance? Well... no.

This is where identifying complements can get tricky.

Without getting bogged down in really technical stuff, here's a few guidelines for quickly deciding whether something is a complement or a modifier:

  • Noun groups and adjective groups are never modifiers in standard English, even if they are not necessary for the sentence to be grammatically correct:
    • "We ate breakfast beside a small fire."
  • Complements tend to come directly after the verb that they belong to:
    • "We ate breakfast beside a small fire."
    • "We ate beside a small fire breakfast."
  • Modifiers tend to be more flexible about where you put them:
    • "We ate breakfast beside a small fire."
    • "Beside a small fire, we ate breakfast."
    • "We, beside a small fire, ate breakfast."

These guidelines aren't perfect, so don't be surprised if you come across examples that don't strictly follow these rules.

And unless you're really interested in language structure, you don't need to be able to identify every single dubious complement.

The important takeaway here is that complements are more restrictive than modifiers.

Whether you must, can, or can't have a complement is determined by the verb and a dash of context, but modifiers can always be added or taken away.

That's all you really need to remember! ☺️ 

You have a try.

Write a couple of sentences and see if you can deliberately exclude or include complements, to make sure you understand the difference.

Your turn
Your turn
Boss level: I'm *really* interested in language structure

That's everything you need to know about clause components, so let's write a checkpoint piece.

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