In the sentence

[1] He is the most talented artist (that) I know

what is (that) I know in terms of function – an indirect complement, licensed by most, or simply a common postmodifier? Why?

Similarly, what is in the world in

[2] the most talented artist in the world

and why?

Addition to the original post: Having read the answer and the comments that I've received for this question, along with answers to other questions about licensing and the modifier/complement distinction, I have to give this another go:

According to the comments below, we are dealing with modifiers rather than (indirect) complements in both the above examples. Now, I'm not doubting the validity of these comments – I just still don't understand. This is why:

As far as I've been able to understand, licensing is all about setting up "slots" for specific kinds of structure. For instance, a verb such as give sets up a slot for something being given, and a slot for a recipient; consequently it licenses two object complements (direct and indirect object). Part of the deal is also that the slots set up are specific to a subset of "licensers"; in this case: not all verbs license two objects.

Now, to me it seems that this 'setting up slots that are specific to a certain subgroup' is exactly what superlatives do, something that, I think, is supported by John Lawler's answer below:

Most is a superlative marker and takes a superlative construction. One of the things required for the construction is a range for comparison

Looking again at [1] and [2], it seems to me that both the relative clause in [1] and the prepositional phrase (PP) in [2] elaborate on the "range-for-comparison-slot" set up by most; hence, they should both be licensed by most, no?

Now, if these dependents are indeed licensed, they should be complements – shouldn't they? Only, since they aren't licensed by the head noun, but rather by another constituent within the noun phrase (NP), they'd be indirect complements.

This is my take on all this – could someone please explain to me where I go wrong, and how I should think instead?

  • 1
    I've edited in quote marks, because the italics on their own were a bit unclear. Dec 29, 2018 at 22:20
  • @Hannah "(that) I know" is a relative clause modifying "artist". In your other example, the PP "in the world" is complement of "artist".
    – BillJ
    Dec 30, 2018 at 10:11
  • @BillJ Would it be possible for you develop this in an actual answer? I'd be very interested to know more about the way in which the PP is a complement, and also your thoughts on the fact that the relative clause "(that) I know" seems to connect with the head noun in a whole different way in the original example, compared to the way it connects in "the artist that I know", where it's clearly and indisputably a postmodifier. Thank you!
    – Hannah
    Dec 30, 2018 at 11:54
  • I don't have much to add. Relative clauses are modifiers, not complements, so the matter of licensing does not arise. On reflection, though, I would say that the PP "in the world" is a modifier not a complement since it doesn't have to be licensed by the head noun "artist".
    – BillJ
    Dec 31, 2018 at 14:58
  • @BillJ Ok – then I understand in "in the world", thanks! :) I had no idea that relative clauses were always automatically modifiers though – good to know :) I just think there is a clear difference in the connection between the head noun and the relative clause depending on whether or not we keep "most talented", but I suppose it's just my intuition that fails me then. Thanks again!
    – Hannah
    Dec 31, 2018 at 15:14

2 Answers 2


Both of these are simply the Superlative construction.

Most is a superlative marker and takes a superlative construction. One of the things required for the construction is a range for comparison, which can be expressed as a relative clause modifying the superlative NP:

  • He is the tallest boy who is in the class.

Of course, such relative clauses are often trimmed down to prepositional phrases by Whiz Deletion:

  • He is the tallest boy in the class.

In your terms, yes, it's a post-modifier and it's licensed by most (or by -est).
If you called it an indirect complement I'd be puzzled, but that's nothing new.
I don't know what you'd call a reduced relative clause.
It may be a heretical notion, though it's not a new one.

  • Thanks @John Lawler! I'm confused by the part about being licensed, but still being a modifier though... and also, if it is indeed licensed by "most", it has to be indirect, right? So your answer seems a little bit contradictory to me. I'm sure it's just me being a bit slow though, so if you could clarify, I'd be very grateful.
    – Hannah
    Dec 30, 2018 at 9:33
  • I have no idea what you mean by "indirect". Licensing has to do with particular constituents that allow other constituents to occur, the way negation licenses negative polarity items like ever or any Dec 31, 2018 at 2:25
  • Sorry, I'm speaking in CaGEL's terms – I haven't got it with me at the moment, so I can't give page references unfortunately... but like "than this" in "a longer lecture than this" which is an indirect complement in the NP, since it's licensed by "-er" in "longer" rather than by the head noun. As for licensing, I agree, but I thought that was the whole point of the distinction between complements and modifiers – that complements, but not modifiers, need to be licensed, so I don't quite understand how it's not a complement if it needs to be licensed... see what I mean?
    – Hannah
    Dec 31, 2018 at 13:51
  • That may be the whole point of the distinction between complements and modifiers, but frankly I don't find that to be a useful distinction, and I don't use it. Nothing particular hinges on it; it's just pilpul. Jan 1, 2019 at 4:53
  • 1
    Pilpul – haha, I kind of agree, actually... I was just revisiting the idea of licensing and thinking basically just that. Might post a question about it, because as far as I can see quite a lot does hinge on it in CaGIL...
    – Hannah
    Jan 1, 2019 at 14:31

I think I may have figured out the answer to my own question!

[1] He is the most talented artist (that) I know

[2] He is the most talented artist in the world

I think the reason that the relative clause and the PP here seem like complements is that although they are modifiers, they are modifiers not of the head noun artist, but rather of the head of the NP complementing an ellipted PP – where the ellipted PP in turn functions as a complement licensed by most:

[1a] He is the most talented artist of all the artists that I know

[2a] He is the most talented artist of all the artists in the world

What do you think?

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