adjunct vs complement

Interstellar Bruce

Member
Spanish
Hi guys! For the last three weeks I´ve been dealing with tree diagram representation and the thing is that I find it very difficult to distinguish between an adjunct and a complement in certain phrases. I know that adjuncts add information that is not obligatory for the meaning of the sentence, but it can be very tricky sometimes:

-Elephants develop a close bond with their handlers.
-In the early years of schooling
-Most damage occurs in tissues with rapidly dividing cells
- I read books about the universe

Are the underlined phrases adjuncts?
It'd be really useful for me to know any method to distinguish one from the other.

Thanks in advance :)
 
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  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Hi, Bruce. All of these phrases seem to tell us something essential about the words or phrases that come before them. I'm no authority on the terms that grammarians use. If I use your definition for "adjunct", however, these phrases don't seem to qualify.

    "Complements", as I understand them, generally follow linking verbs and work as adjectives that modify some noun. People sometimes use "adverbials" rather than "adjuncts" in talk about nonessential information in a sentence. Perhaps a diligent search on the internet for grammar sites that deal with these terms will help you find a source that you can consider authoritative.

    We have one or two regular members in here who seem quite familiar with all the special words that grammarians use in talk about various constructions. Maybe you'll get lucky enough for one of them to see your thread and respond with quick, reliable answers that will help you.
     
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    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    The examples you have given are all complements or modifiers of nouns, and these can be notoriously difficult to distinguish. Even the Cambridge Grammar (CGEL), in three cases, analyses equivalent noun-PP combinations as complement in one section and as modifier in another.

    bond with their handlers
    The PP is clearly a complement because there is a verb corresponding to the noun which takes the PP as a complement - i.e. elephants bond with/to their handlers, where "with"/"to" are "specified" prepositions in that no others can be substituted.

    years of schooling
    "of" is often tricky. "of" meaning "enveloping" marks a complement (as in bowl of fruit), while "of" meaning "consisting of" or "made of" marks a modifier (as in plate of gold). I read "of" here as temporal envelopment and therefore as marking a complement.

    tissues with rapidly dividing cells
    The PP is obviously a modifier, since many nouns can be substituted for "tissues".
    Edit: you have excluded the preposition from your highlighting. If that is intentional, then the phrase is a complement, viz direct object of the preposition "with".

    books about the universe
    Try substituting a number of word-comprising entities for "book", and then pick one with a corresponding verb-form, "discussion" say. As a verb, "discuss" takes "the universe" as a direct object and this qualifies the same NP as an oblique complement of the noun "discussion" derived from the verb.
     
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    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hi guys! For the last three weeks I´ve been dealing with tree diagram representation and the thing is that I find it very difficult to distinguish between an adjunct and a complement in certain phrases. I know that adjuncts add information that is not obligatory for the meaning of the sentence, but it can be very tricky sometimes:

    -Elephants develop a close bond with their handlers.
    -In the early years of schooling
    -Most damage occurs in tissues with rapidly dividing cells
    - I read books about the universe

    Are the underlined phrases adjuncts?
    It'd be really useful for me to know any method to distinguish one from the other.

    Thanks in advance :)
    In questions of terminology, it makes a difference what theoretical model you use, because not everyone uses the same terms in the same way. For example, cognitive grammar may place semantics and syntax on the same analytical level, whereas generative grammar may rely exclusively on syntax. (And I same "may" because nothing is written in stone.) Nonetheless, we can make some general observations.

    First of all, are you focusing on the nouns bond, year, and books? If that's the case, then the underlined phrases are complements because they complete the specific meaning of each noun. Mind you, in this sense, the term "complement" has a wide scope: it applies to any element that completes the meaning of another element.

    Are you focusing on each sentence? If so, then there's good reason to call each underlined prepositional phrase an adjunct. "Complements" are closely related to a head, and so complements naturally appear immediately after the head in question. When looking sentences 1, 3 and 4*, we are focusing on the predicate, where the "head" is the verb. There are various "tests" to determine if something is a complement or an adjunct. Since complements are closely attached to the head, they resist being placed away from the head. So one test is to reverse things, to see if they make sense.

    Thus, while we can say I read books about the universe, we can't say I read about the universe books. That tells us that "books" is a complement of the verb, which means that "about the universe" is an adjunct. Similarly, Most damage occurs in tissues with rapidly dividing cells make perfect sense, but Most damage occurs with rapidly divining cells in tissues is hard to process; we are forced to put things back in the proper order, because "with rapidly dividing cells" is an adjunct and shouldn't be placed immediately after the verb, given that that spot is reserved for a complement.

    A problem in all this is that you can't always take semantics completely out of the analysis. Elephants develop with their handlers a close bond suggests that both "elephants" and "handlers" are equally willing participants in the creation of a "bond;" that's the semantic effect of putting the prepositional phrase in the spot of "complement" (immediately after the verb). With commas (Elephants develop, with their handlers, a close bond), the prepositional phrase is now interpreted as an adjunct, the equivalent of Elephants develop a close bond with their handlers. The semantic interpretation of having "with their handlers" as an adjunct is that "handlers" may or may not develop a "bond" with the elephants (in the way that elephants develop a bond with their handlers). But take semantics analysis with a grain of salt; semantics is always in the eye of the beholder.

    Whether an element in the predicate is a complement or an adjunct depends on the verb in question. Another test is to see if there's a change in meaning if you omit an element. For example, in He is to my left, the prepositional phrase "to my left" is an argument of the verb; the argument expresses "location." If we drop the prepositional phrase (He is), the verb would be interpreted with the meaning of "existence" (or "He is" could simply be labeled "ungrammatical").

    Keep in mind that in making a distinction between complements and adjuncts, many focus exclusively on syntax. So, in She is reading a book, "a book" is a complement/argument of the verb "reading" because a book completes the meaning of the verb (in other words, "a book" is the direct object of "reading"). We can drop the complement, because what's left behind (She is reading) is a grammatical sentence, expressing progressive aspect, even though there's now missing information (we don't know "what" she is reading). The point is that the missing information doesn't affect the grammaticality of the sentence (and it's understood that she is reading "something").

    *In sentence 2 there's no verb. There, "of schooling" is a complement, modifying "years," the head of the noun phrase the early years.
     
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