Could you please help me determine what the complete predicate is in the following sentence?

I get the willies when I see closed doors. — Joseph Heller, Something Happened.

At first I thought the complete subject would be "I" and the complete predicate would be "get the willies when I see closed doors" because that is giving information about what the subject does. But now I am starting to doubt myself--mainly due to the adverb clause "when I see closed doors" which also contains a subject and predicate ("I" and "see closed doors"). Is it possible for this subordinate, adverb clause to be part of the entire sentence's complete predicate? Or do I need to break the sentence up by clauses (in order to determine the complete predicate), and, if so, what becomes of the word "when"?

Thank you for your help.


Yes, according to the traditional definition of "predicate", the when clause is part of the predicate of the main clause, just as any other adverbial phrase of time, like during the spectacle.

But each clause can have its own predicate, as it is the case here; the subordinate clause has a subject (I) and a predicate (see closed doors) too. One clause can be nested within another clause while still having a predicate and a subject of its own; consequently, the words see closed doors are both part of the predicate of the main clause and part of the predicate of the subordinate clause.

The conjunction when, which governs the content of the subordinate clause, is normally not considered part of the subordinate clause itself, in that it is neither part of its predicate nor of its subject. (Note that, in relative clauses, the relative pronoun is part of the subordinate clause, so that it can be the subject.)

  • In the tradition of Reed and Kellogg, yes, this would be an adverb clause, and it would be part of the predicate. <books.google.ca/…>. But I hope we've moved beyond the 19th century when it comes to analysing grammar. – Brett Reynolds Mar 3 '12 at 13:57
  • We have... but dare I suggest that when people ask about "subject/predicate", that's usually an indication that they haven't... :) – Neil Coffey Mar 4 '12 at 1:28
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    I have no idea where this problem with the idea of PREDICATE comes from. In the journal English Language and Linguistics, which has been around for only 18 years, there are 306 articles mentioning subject and 166 mentioning predicate. Both words have multiple meanings, but a quick scan through shows that predicate is part and parcel of modern English linguistics. – Brett Reynolds Mar 4 '12 at 3:09
  • @BrettReynolds: Hmm so what is the problem exactly? – Cerberus Mar 4 '12 at 3:36
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    I mentioned that John said that the adjunct can come BEFORE the subject, not that it is the subject. If the adjunct is external to the predicate, then it could have relationships with two clauses, but if it is actually "part of" a predicate, then it cannot be "part of" just as the oxygen in an atom of water cannot simultaneously be part of an atom of carbon dioxide. – Brett Reynolds Mar 4 '12 at 14:43

Following Jespersen (The Philosophy of Grammar, 1924) the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes when to be a preposition taking clausal complements. Thus, when I see closed doors is a preposition phrase. The function of this preposition phrase is that of adjunct in clause structure.

CGEL also uses the term PREDICATE to denote the head of a clause, a function filled by a verb phrase. The adjunct is neither part of the subject nor part of the VP functioning as the predicate. The syntax tree, then, looks like this:

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    It seems to me that we're just playing with names, though. Sure, you could say that the predicate is the VP, but why not just call it the VP, then? It's not clear to me that at any detailed level, you would have some separate logical constituent corresponding exactly to the VP. – Neil Coffey Mar 3 '12 at 14:10
  • We don't just call it the VP for the same reason that we don't do away with SUBJECT and just use NP: because not all predicates are VPs and not all VPs are predicates. Here's a predicate that's not a VP They were standing [with their hands above their heads]. – Brett Reynolds Mar 3 '12 at 14:48
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    OK, I think I got confused by the word "function". Really what you're referring to by "predicate" is effectively a structural position, then (the 'head VP' in the clause or something similar). So hey, why not-- but I think you're still just playing with nomenclature unless I'm missing something? Adding the word "predicate" doesn't actually add any extra level of analysis? – Neil Coffey Mar 3 '12 at 15:38
  • Every constituent has a function and a category. The term PREDICATE tells you the relationship of a particular VP to the other constituents in the clause just as SUBJECT tells you the relationship of a particular NP to other constituents in the clause. – Brett Reynolds Mar 3 '12 at 15:47
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    I don't understand what the objection is here. If you'd like to call the predicate something else, like "head", then that's fine. But calling it VP would just confuse things. In the context of the original question, I've answered it with research. What's the problem? – Brett Reynolds Mar 3 '12 at 18:49

It may be helpful to see the sentence in terms of functional grammar. I and the willies are Participants and get is a Process in the independent clause, and I and doors are Participants and see is a Process in the dependent clause. The dependent clause itself is a Circumstance in the Process get.


You seem to be asking whether one clause can be a constituent of another clause.  Yes, it can.  That's the reason that terms like "main clause" and "matrix clause" exist. 

As I parse your example, you have one sentence which contains one matrix clause which contains one subordinate clause.  The subordinate clause is an adverbial clause, and it acts as an adjunct of the matrix clause's verb.  The subordinate clause is part of the predicate of the matrix clause.

Not all subordinate clauses are part of a matrix clause's predicate.  That they have another use is easy to demonstrate. 

Consider the sentence "That they have another use is easy to demonstrate."  The subject of this sentence is a subordinate clause, which has its own subject.  We can divide the matrix clause into the subject "That they have another use" and the predicate "is easy to demonstrate."  We can divide the subordinate clause into the subordinating conjunction "that", the subject "they" and the predicate "have another use."


I do have a small problem with the way you phrased the following question:

  • Is it possible for this subordinate, adverb clause to be part of the entire sentence's complete predicate?

That's a common phrasing and it's not completely wrong, but it's not completely clear, either.  Your example sentence has one independent clause.  That one clause has one subject and one predicate.  However, compound subjects, compound predicate and compound sentences do exist.  It won't always be true that a given sentence has only one main predicate. 

"The predicate of the sentence" is shorthand for "The predicate of the (one) main clause of the sentence".  In your example sentence, there's no such thing as the one complete predicate of the sentence.  The sentence contains two predicates, one inside another.  There does happen to be only one main clause and only one predicate of that main clause, but two predicates in it. 

When I rephrase your question without the shorthand, it practically answers itself. 

  • Is it possible for this adverbial subordinate clause to be part of the predicate of the matrix clause?

If it's subordinate, then it is contained in a matrix clause.  If it's adverbial, then it can modify a verb.  If it does modify the verb, then it's an adjunct of the verb and a constituent of the predicate.  That is to say, if the words in my rephrasing of the question are the right words to use, then it must be possible.


So you would probably end up saying that "I" is the subject and the whole rest of the sentence is the predicate.

But, the bigger question is really: does dividing the sentence up into "subject" vs "predicate" in this way actually serve any useful purpose? What does this 'analysis' of the sentence actually buy you?

  • Yeah I've always wondered about that. I imagine it is just the first step in some kind of larger analysis. – Cerberus Mar 2 '12 at 4:19
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    @Neil Coffey, I think it is helpful for non-native learners to have a basic knowledge of English syntax and the terms used to describe it. When things go awry in one of their sentences I ask them to identify the clauses, and their subjects and predicates. This is often enough for them to see what has gone wrong. The same applies to their reading too. If they come upon an incomprehensible sentence, it often helps them to identify the simple subject and predicate of the main clause and work up from that. – Shoe Mar 2 '12 at 6:48
  • OK, I suspect the clue here is that you're asking them to identify the subjects of clauses, and that the analysis you're essentially doing is identifying clauses. That's a different thing to the (IMO totally pointless) exercise of attaching a special name and status to 'all of the words in the sentence minus the subject'. – Neil Coffey Mar 2 '12 at 14:42
  • P.S. I should say-- I also agree that you can take John Lawler's view that "subject/predicate" relate to the logical level of the sentence minus adverbials that modify the whole verb phrase (including its subject, tense etc). So in that sense, the answer to the poster's question is "'when I see closed doors' is irrelevant to the analysis". – Neil Coffey Mar 2 '12 at 14:50
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    It buys you consistency. Every constituent has both a category and a function. The predicate is the function of the matrix VP. See my answer. – Brett Reynolds Mar 3 '12 at 13:51

"Predicate" is not a grammatical term; it refers to Logic, not Syntax. There is a predicate in every clause, and normally it's a verb; if it's not, then one needs some form of be to carry the tense in the clause, as in I am tired (where the predicate is tired, a Predicate Adjective) or He is a doctor (where it's doctor, a Predicate Noun).

In the example sentence provided,

  • I get the willies when I see closed doors.

the subject of the main clause is I, and so is the subject of the subordinate clause. The Verb Phrase in the main clause is get the willies, and in the subordinate clause it's see closed doors.

The subordinate clause when I see closed doors is an adverb clause, which modifies the whole main clause and can -- like most adverbs -- appear either at the beginning or the end of the clause it modifies. If the main clause were longer, it might also appear internally, but this main clause is short and doesn't have any good niches for adverbs.

Adverb clauses are not normally part of either the subject or the verb phrase. This is not true for Noun clauses like Complements, which can be subjects or objects themselves, nor of Adjective clauses like Relatives, which modify and are part of a noun phrase. Noun phrases may be the subject, or may be the object; objects are part of the verb phrase).

I realize that many old steam-powered grammar books talk about the Complete Subject and the Complete Predicate as if they were real constructions that any educated person should know about, but they are one with Phlogisticated Aether and shouldn't be paid attention to. Sorry, things have changed since those books were written.

  • And I still come back to my question: what purpose does this serve...? ;-) – Neil Coffey Mar 2 '12 at 14:44
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    At some level, it's difficult to separate off "adverbials that modify the whole sentence" from the verb phrase, since things like e.g. the choice of tense, whether passivisation is possible could depend on that adverbial (or rather, both tense/aspect etc and the adverbial could depend on some shared feature/phenomenon at a logical level). So as I say, I'm not sure that the "subject/predicate" split really works terribly well, or what it buys you. – Neil Coffey Mar 2 '12 at 14:56
  • It doesn't work, and it buys nothing. But it's still common currency around the world in English classes, alas. – John Lawler Mar 2 '12 at 17:18

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