I read a comment on licensing in another post, which made me revisit this concept. Unfortunately I haven't got access to CaGEL – only to its "little brother", Huddleston and Pullum's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (henceforth referred to as H&P), so this is what I will refer to in the following.

In their discussion of licensing (e.g. pp65ff), H&P repeatedly use a test where they substitute the head of a VP with another verb, in order to illustrate the difference between complement and adjunct. For instance, they show on p65 that the NP the cheese in Sue used the cheese is a complement (Od) because if the head of the VP (used) is substituted with an intransitive verb – i.e. a verb that doesn't license a complement – we get an ungrammatical result: * Sue disappeared the cheese. On p71 they do the same thing with the manager, in Ed told the manager, showing that the manager is a complement since it is inadmissible with the intransitive verb arrive – * Ed arrived the manager.

To me, this MO seems odd, seeing that it suggests that a certain form always has the same function, regardless of the context in which it is used – something that obviously doesn't hold true. The unreliability of the substitution test becomes blatantly obvious if we use it on a clause such as She stayed in her bedroom, where we want to determine whether in her bedroom is a complement or not. If we use this test here, and substitute the head of the VP (stayed) with the intransitive verb disappeared, we get She disappeared in her bedroom, which is a perfectly well formed sentence. According to the test, then, in her bedroom should be an adjunct; however, according to H&P (p142) in her bedroom is, in fact, a complement in the VP stayed in her bedroom.

So, my question now is quite simply: have I missed something here? Is there a way the substitution test is, in fact, reliable as a way of determining licensing and, thereby, whether a certain element is an adjunct or a complement?

Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.

(for a related question, please see this)

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    You are wrong about "last week". It is a complement because in "The meeting was last week", it is an obligatory item since its omission renders the sentence ungrammatical. Both SIEG and CGEL make this very clear in the various discussions about complements and adjuncts.
    – BillJ
    Jan 1, 2019 at 20:16
  • If the meeting was last week is part of a particular longer sentence, then last week could be dropped, keeping it grammatical. (For instance: I didn't know where the meeting was last week.) It's also conceivable that the meeting was, entirely on its own, could be considered grammatical in the same sense that the world was, is, and will be is grammatical. If was is taken to mean existed. But most people parsing just the meeting was would not consider it to be meaningful. Also, the existence of last week would change the interpretation of what was is anyway. Jan 1, 2019 at 20:57
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    But it's not part of a longer sentence, so it's a pointless argument. We can't say *"the meeting was"; that's why "last week" is an obligatory item and hence a complement. Do you actually know what a complement is?
    – BillJ
    Jan 1, 2019 at 21:05
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    Note that obligatory items are always complements: they are needed to complete the verb phrase; optional items may be complements or adjuncts.
    – BillJ
    Jan 1, 2019 at 21:14
  • @BillJ YES!! That is precisely my point! That "last week" in "the meeting was last week" is a complement. This is exactly why the discussion of licensing doesn't quite make sense to me, since it hinges on the assumption that a certain form has the same function regardless of context. See?
    – Hannah
    Jan 2, 2019 at 9:05

1 Answer 1


More of a comment than a real answer but I'm not able to comment on here just yet. It seems to me this test works relatively well if you bear in mind that in:

She stayed in her bedroom

You can't drop in her bedroom without changing the meaning of the verb, whereas in

She disappeared in her bedroom

you can.

In the second sentence in her bedroom just adds detail about the circumstances of the disappearing, whereas in the first it is integral to the meaning of the verb.

If you change the second sentence to she disappeared into her bedroom, you make the last bit a complement again, but now the meaning of disappeared is different - almost opposite, if you consider that if someone is said to have disappeared, it usually means we don't know where to find them.

In answer to your comments Hannah:

I haven't got the book you mention, but the way I understand the substitution test is that if the result is not grammatical in the original sense of the verb, that counts as a failure. Therefore, if the new sentence is not obviously ungrammatical, the omission test is used to check whether the verb is being used in a different sense - but if it is, that means that the substitution has changed the meaning, and hence that the substitution test is failed.

Maybe the omission test is more of an intuition pump than anything else, and maybe we have different intuitions about the meaning of stayed, but to me, it has the sense of we're having Jack and Caitlin to stay when used by itself. If you use it with something that's obviously an adjunct, you seem to end up with this sense - if you said she stayed a long time, I would take that to mean that she didn't leave the party until late, or stayed with friends or at a hotel - somewhere away from home - for a long time. There is an idea of being hosted or put up that's not there in she stayed in her bedroom.

  • Thank you for your answer! Im not sure whether you mean that the substitution test works well though, or if you're referring to the omission test that you illustrate? Also, I honestly don't see how stayed changes meaning in any relevant way if we take away the complement?
    – Hannah
    Mar 20, 2019 at 9:11
  • Also, I've come to realise that the substitution test probably isn't meant as a test for complements in general, but rather for objects only – if that is the case, it explains a lot :)
    – Hannah
    Mar 20, 2019 at 9:14
  • @Hannah Stay in "having friends to stay" means something like sleep and carry out ones domestic bits and bobs somewhere. In contrast stay in I want you to stay calm/in your room/where you are means to not change your state or location etc. It´s meaning is close to remain. Notice that if the meaning changes, so do the grammatical constraints and also the grammatical functions of the phrases following stay. This means that sentences with the same superficial surface form may be ambiguous. I think Minty makes some good points. Mar 20, 2019 at 11:44
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    @Hannah The subsitution test is no good if the verb can be used either transitively and if the phrase concerned can also freely function as an adjunct as well as a complement of that same verb. So for example a substitution test for every day used with the verb record is no good, because a sentence such as I record every day is ambiguous. Mar 20, 2019 at 11:58
  • Thank you again Minty – I only just saw your addition to your answer! I can completely follow your reasoning now – thing is, this is not the way H&P reason at all; they're talking about actually replacing one verb with a completely different one, and they're not discussing omission at all, so that's why I didn't at first quite get what you meant :) It's interesting what you write about the meaning of stay; to me, the default meaning is 'remain in the same place', and the sense you're talking about would have to be elicited from context... So I agree about intuitions :) Thanks again!
    – Hannah
    Mar 21, 2019 at 7:31

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