8 The synthetic grammar of English – the conventional wisdom with objects and complements

The synthetic grammar of a sentence is its internal functional structure, conventionally expressed in terms of the classes of subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial. My own feeling is that three-fifths of the conventional explanation of functional structure is a mess, but let’s continue to look at conventional explanations, despite their faults and limitations and, later, look at ways to improve things in this area of enquiry and explanation. Let’s look now at objects and complements highlighted in our two ‘train’ sentences here:

The trainsubject pushedverb the passenger carriageobject up the hilladverbial.

The driversubject wasverb excited by the speedcomplement, with the wind rushing though her hairadverbial.

Direct and indirect objects

The object of a sentence is conventionally described as the person or thing that is acted on, or acted towards, by the subject. There are two forms of object; there are direct objects and indirect objects:

Mary put her glassesdirect object in their case.

Mark gave Maryindirect object a present direct object. (= Mark gave a present to Mary.)

The direct object is directly affected by the action; the indirect object is indirectly affected by it.

There is an issue, in my mind, though, with this contrast between the ‘direct’ and the ‘indirect’ – can one readily say that Mary is more indirectly affected than the present itself? Mary is a more sentient being than the present is, especially if the present is a thing and not a puppy, say; so, you could say she is more directly affected by the giving than the present is. Maybe, there is a case for distinguishing, rather, between objects and adverbial objects? But, we’ll come on to that in due course.

Another issue is that the object often seems to operate, in sentences, as something other than a person or a thing acted upon. Take this example:

Mark tells a lot of jokes.

Mark made a cake.

It is hard to see, in these examples, a lot of jokes or a cake as something acted upon; so, it would be better to say, perhaps, that the object is the focus of an action or, indeed, of a state (such as ‘having’ or ‘knowing’) as in these examples:

Mark has a lot of friends.

Mark was puzzled, but Mary knew the answer.

Prepositional objects

Here is an example of what some define as a prepositional object (for Mary) inside a sentence:

Mark has been waiting for Mary for an hour.

As can be seen here, a prepositional object is an object after a verb that starts with a preposition (in this example, the preposition for). But, I would question whether this sentence has been parcelled up internally in a necessarily convincing way. What if we made for part of the verb, thus …:

Mark has been waiting for Mary for an hour.

… then, isn’t Mary just a straightforward, common-or-garden object after the verb form wait for?


Complements, to put it mildly, are tricky ‘customers’. So, what exactly is a complement? Well, it’s hard to be exact as the term complement is not exactly a very exact term. I looked in a dictionary for the word complement and it said that it was: “that which completes or fills up; … one of the parallelograms not intersected by the diagonal of a given parallelogram when it is divided into four parallelograms by straight lines through a point in the diagonal; that by which a logarithm falls short of 10; that which is added to certain verbs to make a complete predicate; that by which an interval falls short of an octave; one of two colours which together give whi …” Hold on, wait up … that’s it … what was it again? … oh yes: “that which is added to certain verbs to make a complete predicate”. That’s interesting. So, we know that a predicate is everything after the subject in a sentence. But what are the ‘certain verbs’? Well, actually, in case you might have been wondering and didn’t know already, the certain verbs are what are conventionally described as linking verbs – a highly questionable notion, but let’s work with it for the moment. Linking verbs are verbs such as be, seem, feel etc. Linking verbs are so-called because they are seen as linking the subject to what generally directly follows a linking verb and is called the complement, as shown here:

At first, shesubject wasverb amusedcomplement. But after a while, she felt uneasy. His jokes seemed a bit sexist. She was a feminist and believed in respect and equality between the sexes.

So far here, we have only looked at subject complements: complements that link back to the subject. But, there are also object complements: complements that link back to the object. Have a look at these examples:

They elected herobject Chair of the committeecomplement. (= They elected her to be Chair of the committee.)

The news made Markobject happycomplement. (= This made Mark feel happy.)

Notice how the complement here complements the object with an implicit linking verb (to be, feel) between them as shown in the bracketed glosses.

Actually, things are bit more complex than this. My dictionary is being a bit coy because, by ‘certain verbs’, it could just mean transitive verbs; in other words, it could mean verbs that take objects and that aren’t linking verbs at all; in that case, verbs that need objects have a slot that needs to be filled and what fills it can, therefore, be called a complement as much as it can be called an object. And, indeed, according to most linguists, objects are also complements. Take a look at this example:

He supported her politics.

In this example, the bit in bold (her politics) is a complement just as much as it is an object. Confusing? Hmm, a little bit … .

David Lott

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