I have two questions about predicative complements:

1) I've been scouring CaGEL* in pursuit of some kind of survey of forms functioning as subject predicative complement, but have failed miserably; I've found lots of comments as to what forms typically function as subject predicative complement, but no exhaustive discussion of all the forms that actually can function this way. Is there anyone who happens to know of any such discussion/survey?

2) On a more specific note, I'm wondering about the phrase in bold in [1]:

[1] I am very (much) against the whole idea

What is this?? From a function perspective, it clearly relates to a predicand (the subject I), so I guess it has to be a subject predicative complement, right? But what is it from a formal point of view? It’s like an adjective phrase in that it can be modified by very or very much in the sense 'decisively', but it’s obviously more like a PP in that it contains a complement in the form of a noun phrase (the whole idea), and in that against is listed as a preposition (and once as a conjunction, but never as an adjective) in the dictionaries I’ve checked (Oxford, Cambridge, Merriam.-Webster) – plus, as far as I can see, it's treated only as a preposition in CaGEL. Now, if PPs can’t function as predicatives, I suppose the only possible analysis is to see this phrase as an AdjP, but since I’m not sure they can’t (hence my first question above) I’m still wondering…

*Huddleston, R., and Pullum, G. K., 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1) The predicative complement following the verb "be" can either specify or ascribe a property to the subject. The specifying PC is typically an NP, but other forms of the specifying complement are not uncommon either. (CGEL p270 (c) .....can be expressed by a phrase of any category or a subordinate clause). Here are a couple examples, illustrating clausal predicative complements :

The problem was that the hardware didn't work on the proprietary platform.

The best solution was to buy commercially available software.

The ascriptive PC typically has the form of an adjective or noun phrase. A third option is a prepositional phrase. The use of PPs as predicative complement is illustrated in examples on p643 of CGEL (although primarily meant to illustrate modification of prepositions rather than predicative complementation). Here's what is said there: ".....there are a number of idiomatic PPs that are gradable, and as far their EXTERNAL syntax is concerned they bear significant resemblances to adjectives - PPs such as in a bad temper, out of sorts, out of order, on top of the world."

What the authors mean by "external syntax" is the use of a syntactic element within a broader syntactic structure. In other words, the distribution of this type of prepositional phrases resembles that of adjective phrases.

Now, if PPs can’t function as predicatives, I suppose the only possible analysis is to see this phrase as an AdjP

Reclassifying a constituent which is clearly a prepositional phrase as an adjective phrase is a major mistake.We have to make sure to keep a clear distinction between a syntactic form and a syntactic function. The internal syntax of "very much against the whole idea" is that of a prepositional phrase. How we may possibly use it is another kettle of fish. The authors of CGEL put it very clearly "..as far as their external syntax is concerned" PPs may resemble adjective phrases. Again, their distributions may match in certain constructions.

Dictionary categorizations of words are not reliable and I'd suggest you take them with caution. Lexicographers tend to slap different labels on words based on their syntactic functions. So, any individual word is assigned to as many word classes as there are functions that it performs. This is of course a huge source of confusion for people interested in studying language structure. It suffices to say here that a caution against confusing form and function can be found in the introductory chapters of good grammar books.

  • So [off%the%cuff] would be analysed differently in 'He replied with a typical off-the-cuff remark' and 'His reply was, as you'd expect, off the cuff'? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '20 at 12:03
  • @Edwin Of course it would! The form is the same but the grammatical function is different. The PP "off the cuff" modifies a noun in "off-the-cuff remark" . In "His reply was off the cuff" it is a verb complement: ..was off the cuff. – user97589 Feb 6 '20 at 12:24
  • But the first variant is indisputedly classed as a compound adjective. It's a single word. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '20 at 13:52
  • In my view, off-the-cuff is not one word. The hyphens are not there to make it one word, they indicate the fact that the three words make up a single syntactic constituent - a noun pre-modifier. It is not like vice-president, or president-elect etc. , which qualify as one word. The use of hyphens in complex noun premodifiers is understandable - we want to make clear which part comes with what. So, off-the-cuff is a prepositional phrase modifying "remark". In six-foot tall person, "six-foot" is an NP. The hyphen is there for syntactic not lexical reasons. – user97589 Feb 6 '20 at 14:50
  • 1
    Sorry Edwin, it was meant as a joke :) I'll look around for information on the gentleman. – user97589 Feb 6 '20 at 17:03
  1. ?I am very against the whole idea

Sounds weird to my ears. I'd definitely use very much:

  1. I am very much against the whole idea

But even if some speakers use (1), that doesn't automatically mean that against the whole idea in (1) qualifies as predicative complement. At least not in CGEL.

I'd think CGEL would classify against the whole idea not as predicative complements but as locative complement, because CGEL seems to look at syntax, not semantics in this kind of decision.

That said, PP can be predicative complement in a specifying construction. Under the mat is S(subject) and the place where we used to leave the key for the boys is PC in the following example:

Under the mat is the place where we used to leave the key for the boys.

CGEL says:

Given a clause ‘X – be – Y’, then if be is specifying, we can normally switch to ‘Y – be – X’, retaining the structure ‘S – P – PC’

In the above example, Under the mat = X, the place where we used to leave the key for the boys = Y. And you can switch it to:

The place where we used to leave the key for the boys is under the mat.

Now, The place where we used to leave the key for the boys is S and under the mat is PC. So, yes, you've got a PP as PC but only in the specifying construction.

  • Hi JK2! I couldn't find much in CGEL in favor or against analyzing PPs as predicative complements but some things they said indicate their position on it. "Very much against.." doesn't qualify as a locative complement - there is nothing in this phrase that tells anything about the location of the subject. However, the sentence will still work if we use "seem" instead of "be", which further points to the predicative status of the PP. – user97589 Feb 6 '20 at 15:06
  • @RejlanGivens I think it tells you not the literal location but the figurative location, so to speak. Regarding the 'seem' test, I wonder where you saw such a test. But as far as I can tell, not all complements of seem are PCs: to be against the idea is not PC in seem to be against the idea. If so, why should the PP be PC just because it can be complement of seem? – JK2 Feb 7 '20 at 7:37
  • @RejlanGivens I personally think that against the idea is not PC in I am against the idea any more than in I voted against the idea. – JK2 Feb 7 '20 at 7:51
  • Okay JK2, getting deeper into this subject will take some more time and space :). Our posts here will hopefully prompt people to investigate this subject further. – user97589 Feb 7 '20 at 8:56

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.