I thought I'd post this as it illustrates a problem often encountered on ELU.

In structures such as 'football manager', is 'football' a modifier or a complement of the head noun?

I've seen both terms used as if there were only one possible correct answer. However, I've come across widely differing definitions of both 'modify' and 'complement' as used in grammar. I believe that people stating baldly that this is either one or the other are assuming a grammar that they prefer, rather than giving a balanced overview.

Notice that I intend this question to explore the usage/s of the term 'modify' and of the term 'complement' in this context. There may be overlap with the question of which word-class 'football' fits into, but that decision hardly answers the question.

  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Is this noun used as an adjective? Feb 27, 2016 at 18:36
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers It's not the same question really. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:13
  • 1
    @HotLicks Well, it could be. All grammar-related questions could be primarily (any grammar book author's) opinion based. What I meant is this question is good for current and future readers. I am not sure if it is a real duplicate as Araucaria seems to agree.
    – user140086
    Feb 28, 2016 at 4:26
  • 1
    @hmm I here by note that a football manager does not manage footballs. But I also note that they do manage football! Feb 28, 2016 at 12:04
  • 1
    @Araucaria - Ah, but is it real football??
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 28, 2016 at 13:24

6 Answers 6


Short answer

(Assuming that Modifiers and Complements exist ...)

It's a Complement.

Here's some evidence, which will be explained in more detail in the longer answer. Firstly, the noun manager inherently implies that there is something being managed. This expectation is fulfilled by the noun football. This shows the tight semantic relationship we expect between Heads and their Complements. This observation is backed up by the fact that the noun manager derives directly from the verb manage. The thing being managed is an argument of the verb manage, and therefore appears as a Complement of the verb. As with many other deverbal nouns we would analogously expect the arguments of the noun manager to correspondingly occur as Complements of the noun, not as Modifiers. In addition, nouns which specifically have the thematic role of patient in relation to the activity indicated by the Head noun would often be expected to be able to occur either as a prehead Complement or, alternatively, as part of a post-head Complement headed by the preposition of:

  • a football manager
  • a manager of football
  • a book collector
  • a collector of books

In addition the word football must occur directly before the noun manager—any prehead Modifiers must come before the word football, not after it:

  • an idiot football manager
  • an overweight, second division football manager
  • a second division, overweight, football manager
  • *a football idiot manager
  • *a football second division overweight manager
  • *an overweight, football, second division manager

Lastly we can observe that football works badly with the anaphoric proform one if we want it to mean football manager

  • I need a manager.
  • I need a premier league one.
  • I need a talented one.
  • *I need a football one. (odd if not ungrammatical)

This is because one is taken to stand in for the Head noun and its Complements. We cannot then try and add another Complement to it. We could, however, modify it with an attributive Modifier as shown in the second and third examples.

Full answer

to be completed in installments ...

1. An admission

First of all, I voluntarily stick my hands up and explain that many of my posts here arbitrarily—and incorrectly—refer to any prehead dependent of the noun in a noun phrase as a modifier. Mea maxima culpa. This is shoddy. The reasons for this errant behaviour are that a) it is often difficult to determine whether a prehead dependent of a noun is a modifier or a complement b) I normally don't care either way— I don't find the prehead dependents of nouns very sexy, unlike prepositions, determiners, verb phrase complementation, relative clauses and larger constructions in general c) my knowledge about the grammar in this area is not very robust d) I often can't tell, and so therefore, given a–c above, I ignore the distinction. So far, the only people who have ever noticed are the fellow posters BillJ and possibly Rathony too.

2.0 Complements versus Modifiers

2.1 Complements

OK, with that out of the way, we can have a look at what a Modifier is and what a Complement is. Well, roughly speaking, a Complement is a phrase which fills a special slot set up by another word or phrase in the sentence. So for example, the verb TEACH sets up a slot for the thing being taught, the Direct Object, and the people being taught, the so-called Indirect Object. These terms such as Direct Object, Indirect Object, Locative Complement and so forth are just more specific names for Complements of a verb. Prepositions take Complements too, often noun phrases which we can also sometimes describe as Predicative Complements or Objects. Adverbs can often take Complements either directly or indirectly as well. So for example, the infinitival clause to eat in one go fills a special slot set up by the adverb too in It was too big to eat in one go. Adjectives can take their own various sorts of Complements too; consider on chess in keen on chess or to leave in keen to leave.

So, all sort of words and phrases can set up these slots, and all sorts of words and phrases can fill them too. Sometimes Complements are obligatory and sometimes they aren't. Of course, it's nice and handy when Complements are obligatory, because it's easy to identify them. It is also, in such cases, easy to demonstrate how that word or phrase has a special relationship with the Head of the phrase. So, unfortunately, Complements are often construed as obligatory essential accompaniments to other words or phrases when we first start to learn about them. This isn't always the case. Let's revisit the verb TEACH:

  • I teach.
  • I teach English.
  • I teach students.
  • I teach students English.
  • I teach English to students.

Here we see this verb taking no Complements, taking one Object, taking two Objects and taking an Object and a preposition phrase Complement. These different Complements are Complements because this verb sets up a special slot for them, not because they are obligatory.

Complements, of course, have other features. For example, they are usually selected by the word they are the Complements of. These Heads will allow certain types of Complements but not others. So for example, the adjective keen will select preposition phrases headed by the preposition on, but not ones headed by the preposition of:

  • keen on spiders
  • *keen of spiders (ungrammatical)

The verb inquire can take interrogative clauses as Complements, but not declarative ones:

  • I inquired whether the elephants had left.
  • *I inquired that the elephants had left. (ungrammatical)

Complements are thought of as being more tightly integrated into the phrases they occur in than Modifiers are. Whereas Complements are often required to be adjacent to the words that license them, Modifiers can often be moved further away from the phrases they modify or appear on either side of them. So if we see both Complements and Modifiers in the same phrase, as a rule of thumb, all other things being equal, we expect the Complements to be closer to the Head word than the Modifiers:

  • Put it on the shop floor on Thursday.
  • *Put it on Thursday on the shop floor. (awkward if not ungrammatical)

A sentence or phrase will often sound marked, awkward or ungrammatical if this does not occur. In the sentence above the Complement on the shop floor will ideally come closer to the verb put than the Modifier on Thursday.

Because Complements are more tightly integrated into the phrases they occur in than Modifiers, they are often obligatorily replaced when we use a proform, whereas Modifiers may be repeated or addended to such phrases:

  • *I put my beer in the fridge and Bob did so in the cupboard. (ungrammatical)
  • I drank my beer in the kitchen but Bob did so in the living room.

  • *I am counting on their help, but I don't want you to do so on their help. (ungrammatical)

  • I am counting on their help, but I don't want you to do so.

In the first sentence in the fridge is a Locative Complement. As the anaphoric proform do so includes the Locative Complement in the second clause in that example, we cannot then add a second Locative Complement, in the cupboard. In the second sentence, where in the kitchen is a Locative Adjunct (a Modifier), we can freely add another Locative Adjunct in the second clause, in the living room. In the last pair we see that the sentence is grammatical if we omit the Complement on their help after do so, and ungrammatical if we repeat it.

Lastly, semantically, Complements usually have a close relationship with the words that license them. Words inherently describe semantic relations between different things. So the verb PUT brings to mind a putter, a thing being put, and a location. It doesn't inherently involve any idea of time. So in Put it in the fridge tonight, we would not expect tonight to be a Complement of the verb put, but we would expect both it and in the fridge to be Complements, which as we have seen above, they are. The thing being put and the destination of that thing are suggested by the very use of the verb PUT. Similarly the noun collector also inherently implies that there are things which are collected and someone who collects them. The noun resignation implies a resigner. So in a collector of antique books, we would expect of antique books to be a Complement, and we would expect of the President to be a Complement in the resignation of the President. But we would not expect in the corner to be a Complement in the collector in the corner, because the noun collector does not inherently imply a location.

Because of semantic factors above we also expect Heads to impose semantic, as well as syntactic, selectional restrictions on their Complements. We can annoy elephants but not tables, unless we ascribe some sort of animacy to our tables for some reason. We don't expect such tight restrictions with Modifiers. One can do almost anything on Wednesday and almost anything pointlessly. And whereas the number of possible Complements is specified by the Head both semantically and syntactically, the number of Modifiers is not.

2.2 Modifiers

Modifiers are never obligatory. We can characterise them as syntactically extra elements. They are usually semantically extra too, in the sense that they are not automatically implied by the words or phrases that they modify. Unlike Complements, Modifiers are usually only loosely integrated into the larger phrases they occur in. Their position is often only loosely determined:

  • I play foot ball [in the park][on Fridays][with my friends]
  • I play football [with my friends][on Fridays][in the park]
  • I play football [on Fridays][in the park][with my friends]
  • [On Fridays] I play football [with my friends] [in the park]

As shown further above unlike Complements, modifiers are not obligatorily relaced when we use proforms to refer back to a larger phrase.

We can use various forms of cycle as an analogy for phrases here: unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, tandems and so forth. If we regard the frame of the cycle as the Head of a phrase or clause, then the Complements are all the things that fit into the different slots in the frame. So the frame dictates the size and number of wheels, saddles, handlebars and so forth (some of which may be optional, for example in the case of tandems) that the frame can take. These things are all Complements. You can't put the wrong Complements on the wrong frames. For example, a unicycle frame won't usually allow handlebars in the same way that an intransitive verb won't allow a Direct Object. Also you can't fit the wrong size parts into the wrong slots. So the stem of your handlebars must fit into the frame, for example. It cannot be too big or too small. So the frame puts restrictions on what can be slotted into it. In contrast, any lights, bells, mudguards, panniers, stickers and so forth are always optional extras. They are, to extend the metaphor, Modifiers. You can't ride your unicycle without a wheel, but a light is definitely an optional extra. Notice as well, that the bicylce frame puts very few selectional restrictions on the Modifiers available. You can stick lights, bells or horns on any cycle you want to, and any number of each as well—although admittedly things might get awkward if you do decide to use very many.

  • This looks very good to me. I'm not going to accept until ornery folk (ie peer reviewers) have had a chance to find more serious faults than lager phrases. // Can you find an authority endorsing 'Nouns can be Modifiers or Complements. It depends on the Head noun and its relationship with the dependent, not on the word class, or on the dependent (the word preceding the Head noun). Adjectives can have both functions too.' ? Feb 28, 2016 at 22:34
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth After ironing out the typos, I'm going to add some specifics on complements of nouns in particular, which will include vetted sources and a bit on different accounts too - but that my take some time. In the meantime, you might want to take a look here CaGEL p.439-40. Feb 29, 2016 at 2:32
  • @EdwinAshworth In fact 439-443 are all pertinent for your Q. But you can see from the eg.s on 439 that nouns can be Mods and Comps and on 440 they discuss the adj criminal as both and compare the two interpretations that result. Feb 29, 2016 at 2:32
  • 1
    This is too good an answer to be buried in time--answers all the questions I had about complements in the past week. I am compelled to leave this chatty comment, even it is just going to be cleaned up by the mods.
    – Eddie Kal
    May 12, 2021 at 3:44
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Okay. Just did!
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 8, 2021 at 22:17

There’s a difference: a football manager is a manager who works in the field (sport) of football. Or a "manager of football", if you prefer.

But "football" does not denote a property of the person referred to as "manager" as say "talented" or "useless" would in "A talented/useless football manager", where the adjectives "talented" and "useless" are clearly modifiers. If "football" were a modifier (like an adjective), it would readily combine with "one", as "talented" does in "get me a talented one", but with "football" you get the very odd *”get me a football one".

  • But as usual with these tests, they are far from perfect. Unless one argues for conversion (I wish these puns would stop appearing), 'gas' is a noun in 'gas appliances'; there are over 100 000 Google hits for "to a gas one", including say 'We would like to switch to a gas one eventually', which I find quite acceptable. And when one looks at 'peripheral adjectives' such as 'mere' in 'a mere youth' ... Feb 27, 2016 at 18:03
  • @ Edwin Ashworth Me too. I'd say that "gas" was a modifier in "gas appliance", not a complement.
    – BillJ
    Feb 27, 2016 at 18:11
  • 2
    "What kind of manager is he?" ~ "A football one". I don't see a problem there. Regardless, you seem to be arguing that restricting "manager of anything" to "manager of football" is not a modification, which is a little odd to put it mildly... Feb 27, 2016 at 18:30
  • @Roaring Fish That may be becoming more acceptable, but there are distinct differences amongst specific couplings. 'What sort of a cake is it?' _'A chocolate one.' // 'What sort of a chair is that?' _*'A deck one.' There are considerations about how near a compound the coupling is, and how adjectival the first word has become. But these don't directly address the usages of 'modifier' and 'complement'. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:08
  • 2
    Please be aware that the downvote is not mine. This is useful. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:44

This is exactly the kind of question that keeps grammarians wide awake and scrabbling far into the night. It is to be appreciated and savored.

It's a question that many dead-tree grammar books dodge and flee, leaving a trail of clearly adjectival egg timers and obviously adjunctive lawn mowers in their wake. When pressed, authorities like Warriner and Lunsford defer to "common usage" and move on - rapidly - leaving the field to puzzled pupils and curious grammarphiles.

A sampling of this kind of "sagacity":

In compound nouns, words double up to express a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. They can be made of common nouns (bus ride), proper nouns (Central Anatolia), or both (Galatia highlands). They can be "open compounds" (acid trip) or closed ones (daylight, slipstream). Compounding has been common throughout the history of English, but writers and their editors don't often agree on when and whether to splice words together. -Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax, 2013

Hale makes no mention of the possible adjectival nature of the nouns, and leaves off the concept of what commenters and answerers are calling complements, adjuncts or determiners, depending on their particular catechisms.

Nouns are sometimes used as adjectives.

sofa cushion hotel lobby bread pudding glass beads

When you are identifying parts of speech and you encounter a noun used as an adjective, label it an adjective. -John E. Warriner, English Grammar and Composition, 1982

Warriner calls them all adjectives, period.

Conscious of the way in which nouns merge over time - think of the drifting that brought taximeter cabriolet eventually into taxicab, thence later to taxi, cab ... and now Uber - I'd like to try to strike a sensible balance.

Having ducked the question numerous times in the classroom and in small-distribution print, let me rise out of the weeds to suggest that it depends on context.

A football manager is a noun modified by an adjective if he is presented in the semantic company of other sorts of managers.

Thus the football coach (different continent, different title, different game...) at Blather State College is adejectivally modified in a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the school' basketball, ice hockey, baseball, lacrosse, golf, swimming and full-contact origami coaches.

If, however, I describe Meghan as our football coach (we are strenuous adherents of Title IX) the word "football" is an adjunct (or complement - let's not be fussy) because it identifies her rather than distinguishing her among her fellow managers.

In attempting the distinction between adjective and complement, one has to look around and see if there are any other kinds of the thing named in sight.

If the noun has the field pretty much to itself, e.g., a lawn mower rusting in a shed devoid of any other kind of "mower," we'll call "lawn" a complement.

But when we see our plucky yellow egg timer alongside our oven timer, our kitchen clock and our stopwatch, we can safely call the "egg" an adjective.

  • So you're defining 'adjective/modifier' as 'that which serves to distinguish type, species ... of N' and 'complement [only as used here?]/adjunct' as 'that which refers to an essential characteristic of N1+N2', if I read you correctly. Very brave; few would accept 'football' in 'football manager' to be indeterminate as to PoS without context. Have you references backing up your views? Would you say 'blue' in 'blue cheese' could sometimes be an adjunct rather than an adjective? What about 'whole' in 'he ate a whole pie'? Feb 27, 2016 at 20:37
  • Please be aware that the downvote is not mine. This is food for thought; I'm convinced that, like the 'adverb' 'class', the 'adjective' 'class' will be overhauled one day. former? mere? fake? // I'm struggling with 'water clock' which seems to use 'water' as an adjunct until someone puts a candle and an alarm clock next to it – while it remains at all times a clepsydra. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:53
  • No downvote from me either. But you need to be aware that the choice is between being a Modifier/Adjunct which you term an adjective and being a Compliment. A Compliment if you like is the opposite of an Adjunct/Modifier. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:54
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth - I appreciate the openness of the discussion on this notably tricky ground. I've edited my answer to offer a couple of references from the shelves of my home "office." There may be some better material back at the shop for me to look at in the coming week. I have to add that my perspective is shaded by decades of trying to help American adolescents deal with the difference between a game boy and a Game Boy (if that even means anything any more). The discussion becomes even harder when we start quibbling over whose textbook's terminology is right. (And God help the agnostics.)
    – Rob_Ster
    Feb 27, 2016 at 21:47
  • @EdwinAshworth - As to the cheese: yes, I would call the 'bleu' in 'bleu cheese" an adjunct, not an adjective, and not merely because for reasons known only to Julia Child we spell it in French. And while I'd love to come up with a clearer argument covering the whole, your whole pie will be a noun modified by an adjective - even if made with minced and sugared Wholes. This whole discussion needs a few thousand fewer miles and a whole lot more ale.
    – Rob_Ster
    Feb 27, 2016 at 21:53

According to Herbst 2010: English Linguistics. A coursebook for Students of English, there are different models by different authors concerning determinative compounds. 'Football manager' is a determinative compound, because the first word defines the second one further.

Herbst himself gives 'killer shark' as an example, 'killer' being a complement, because it defines the subject, 'shark', further. So, in this case, 'football' would be a complement, 'manager' the subject.

According to Plag, Braun, Lappe and Schramm 2007: Introduction to English Linguistics, 'football' would be the modifier, and 'manager' the head.

Another model for the analysis of compounds is by Kastovsky. He distinguishes between determinant and determinantum (Kastovsky 2007: Vocabulary; Kastovsky 1982: Semantics and vocabulary) . When following this model, 'football' would be regarded as determinant, 'manager' as determinantum.

  • Football manager is not a determinative compound, because the football element is giving only extra information (AKA adjunct) rather than modifying the attributes of manager. The common distinction is footstool (odlt.org/ballast/determinative_compound.html), which is a stool for feet, not a stool with the attributes of a foot. Another common example is office manager who is the manager of an office, not a manager with the attributes of an office (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_compound). In the same way, a football manager lacks the attributes of a football. Feb 28, 2016 at 8:35
  • @RoaringFish Hmm ... Attributive modifiers are adjuncts by definition (of the words 'adjunct' and 'modifier'). Feb 28, 2016 at 19:55
  • @Araucaria ~ yes, modifier is pretty much synonymous with adjunct or attribute, but so what? Whatever you call it, it is still very distinct from a complement or an argument. In simple terms, a modifier/adjunct/attribute is optional (as in he is a (football) manager) while a complement is indispensible, as in her face became (white). Feb 29, 2016 at 0:22
  • @RoaringFish But in I smoke there is no Object. In I smoke cigarettes there is an Object. So the Complement doesn't seem to be obligatory there ..., no? Feb 29, 2016 at 0:54
  • 1
    @Araucaria ~ you confusing obeject with complement. In I smoke cigarettes there is no complement. Only a subject, a verb, and an object. Feb 29, 2016 at 1:07

Complement is a very vague term, with at least three meanings.

It can be predicative an assign a property to a subject or object, as in David is angry, where angry is being assigned to David. It can be the object argement of a verb, as in David washed the car where the car is the compelement of washed. In the broadest possible sense, it is somethng that 'completes', as in with the cat where the cat is needed to make with make sense.

Note that none of these apply to football manager, so by any argument football is not a complement of manager.

As the football element is optional because he is a manager works perfectly, the football element is a an noun adjunct by definition, but can also be called an attributive noun. The two terms are pretty much synonymous.

"a noun adjunct or attributive noun or noun (pre)modifier is an optional noun that modifies another noun; it is a noun functioning as a pre-modifier in a noun phrase. For example, in the phrase "chicken soup" the noun adjunct "chicken" modifies the noun "soup".

  • Please be aware that the downvote is not mine. Though the (possibly fourth) usage of 'complement' is not really addressed. Feb 27, 2016 at 20:44
  • Any source for the uncoventional definitions of 'Complement'? Feb 27, 2016 at 20:57
  • Sure. As a subject/object predicate here: www-01.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/… As a verb argument here: glottopedia.org/index.php/Complement Broad 'completion' here: odlt.org/ballast/determinative_compound.html There is nothing unconventional about any of this. It is really quite standard - en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complement_(linguistics). None of these apply to football manager because whatever football is, it is definitely not a complement, nor a determinative compound. Feb 28, 2016 at 8:47
  • 2
    @RoaringFish There certainly is, because of course all grammars count those things as Complements. The problem with your unconventional take is that it only counts those things as Complements. However, many other things are Complements too that are not arguments of a verb. For example the noun phrases which occur after prepositions, the content clauses that occur after nouns such as idea --> The idea [that God exists], for example.There are gazillions more You can't make an argument that an animal isn't a mammal because dogs and cats are mammals and this animal isn't a dog or a cat. Feb 28, 2016 at 10:09
  • @Auracaria ~ yes, by some definitions, some things that are not verb arguments are considered complements. I gave two definitions saying exactly that. Your example is covered by the broad definition, and hence proves nothing. What is 'unconventional' about thinking that only things that match the accepted definition of complements, are complements? Would you say that I was being inconventional if I said happily didn't fit the definition of a noun? If you are going to say that football is a complement of manager, then provide a definition of complement that supports your assertion. Feb 28, 2016 at 11:24

"Football manager" is a compound noun and neither adjective nor modifier nor complement are adequate terms to describe a noun as element of a compound noun. English grammar has failed up to now to come up with an unambiguous term for a special subelement in word formation.

Word formation is a sector of its own. It has nothing to with word classes (adjective), nor word groups ( modifier), nor sentence part ( complement). Traditional grammar has no terms for the various types of word formation because normal grammar does not cover the sector of word formation.


Somewhere I found the term "noun as combining form". I think combining noun would be an appropriate term when it is only used for describing the first noun of compound nouns of the type noun+noun.

  • Yet another view. I'm trying to think of a tight but not compound coupling of N + N form; I've given a reference to an analysis employing a gradience (free association ... loose collocation ... strong collocation ... open compound) elswhere Feb 28, 2016 at 15:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.