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I'm trying to understand the difference between supplements and adjuncts/modifiers. In my search for enlightenment, I've come across a number of entries and posts, of which I think this one summarises the issue most clearly.

However, nowhere have I found a clear explanation as to what the actual functional difference is. In fact, it seems to me that the actual function is often the same – namely providing additional, grammatically optional information about something. Consider the following examples:

(1) There was a box with a silvery lid on the table

(2) There was a box, which had a silvery lid, on the table

As far as I understand, the PP in bold in (1) is a modifier, whereas the relative clause in bold in (2) is a supplement. Still, they both seem to have the same function: to provide additional, grammatically optional information about the box. What sets them apart then is not actually the nature of their function, but rather only the degree to which they are integrated into phrase or clause structure (which, in turn, makes us look upon them as having different functions). Am I right about this, or have I completely misunderstood things?

  • I would rephrase your second example sentence to: There was a box that had a silvery lid on the table. It would help clearly avoid the secondary issue of restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses—which might cause some confusion in answering the specific point of your question. (Your first sentence does not provide grammatically optional information about the box. It provides grammatically essential information about the box.) – Jason Bassford Jan 27 at 20:25
  • @JasonBassford Well, making that change would render the question pointless, since then we wouldn't have a supplement any longer; the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive is not a secondary issue, but rather another aspect of the same thing, right? And what do you mean the modifier isn't grammatically optional? It's a modifier, which in itself means it's grammatically optional; also, in what way would its omission render the result ungrammatical? Communicatively, it's obviously not optional, but from a purely syntactic point of view I can't see how it isn't... could you clarify? – Hannah Jan 27 at 21:25
  • So you're saying there is no difference between the box with a silvery lid and the box that had a silvery lid. Fair enough. (I'm only trying to understand your question, not provide an answer.) So, if we rephrased your first sentence to there was a box that had a silvery lid on the table, would the comparison between the two still be valid in your mind? If so, then the question is seemingly only about restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. Unless I'm still missing something. – Jason Bassford Jan 27 at 22:01
  • @JasonBassford Thank you for making this effort; I really appreciate it :) The short answer is that my question automatically coincides with the distinction between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses, since modifying relative clauses are always restrictive and supplemental relative clauses are always non-restrictive, but supplements can take all sorts of forms (not only relative clause), as can modifiers, so it's not the same question. No worries though; I think I've got my answer below :) – Hannah Jan 28 at 9:41
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The whole problem boils down to one thing. Like all traditional grammarians and all laypeople, you have to stop trying to base syntactic decisions on vague intuitions about what modifies what in a common-sense way, like whether something is "giving information about" something specific or the situation as a whole.

Compare this pair:

[1a] Any driver, realizing the danger, would have stopped.

[2a] Any driver realizing the danger would have stopped.

The point is not whether in some vague sense "realizing the danger" gives information about "the driver" by attributing to him the property of realizing the danger.

So why do we call the phrase "realizing the danger" a supplement in [1a] but a modifier in [2a]?

One reason is that [1a] entails that any driver would have stopped and any driver would have realized the danger. [2a] doesn't: it only says, in effect, that if a driver realized the danger they would have stopped.

In [2a] we have a phrase tightly integrated into the NP, an indispensable part of it. In [1a] we don't: the words "realizing the danger" are a loosely attached interruption of the sentence making a separate and omissible extra entailment.

Loose adjuncts of this kind, the ones we call supplements, can be positioned in various places in the clause:

[1b] Realizing the danger, any driver would have stopped.

[1c] Any driver would, realizing the danger, have stopped.

[1d] Any driver would have stopped, realizing the danger.

But things are totally different with [2a]:

[2b] * Realizing the danger any driver would have stopped.

[2c] * Any driver would realizing the danger have stopped.

[2d] # Any driver would have stopped realizing the danger.

By the asterisks on [2b] and [2c] I mean to indicate that in written form these are actually ungrammatical strings. By the crosshatch before [2d] I mean that although it says something, it would be a bizarre thing to say in a context where [2a] was appropriate; it has totally different truth conditions.

From such considerations, we can conclude that supplements don't always have NP anchors. In [1b], the clause as a whole should probably be considered the anchor.

THIS COULD BE WRONG: grammar is an empirical matter, and there might be a better analysis that treats supplements as modifiers with a special feature requiring extra intonational phrase boundaries (hence the commas).

That is a BIG question, and relates to simplicity and elegance of syntactic constraints on the form of sentences. Despite the temptation of the mnemonically convenient term "modifier", you can't address that question by exercising your intuition about which phrases modify nouns the way adjectives are supposed to and which phrases modify verbs or clauses the way adverbs are supposed to.

  • Excellent answer as always! You say that "The point is not whether in some vague sense 'realizing the danger' gives information about 'the driver' by attributing to him the property of realizing the danger." NO! Exactly! This is precisely what I meant when I said "What sets them apart then is not actually the nature of their function, but rather only the degree to which they are integrated into phrase or clause structure (which, in turn, makes us look upon them as having different functions)". I realise this was badly phrased, and doesn't tell the whole truth, but your answer nailed it :) – Hannah Jan 28 at 9:48

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