In ‘catch me off guard’, is the ‘off guard’ an objective complement or adjective phrase that modifies ‘me’?

My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me off guard and force some magic out of me — he pushed me off the end of Blackpool pier once, I nearly drowned — but nothing happened until I was eight.

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    Excellent question. In traditional grammar it would certainly have been an adjectival phrase modifying me, but I betcha that in the last 50 years linguists have come up with a better analysis of these "catch" expressions. Looking forward to the answers. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 12:40
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    How can 'off guard' modify 'me'? I would say 'off guard' modifies the verb 'catch'. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 12:56
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    @DamkerngT. You can catch him sleeping, or catch him picking his nose, or catch him with a silly grin on his face, or catch him next Tuesday, or catch him for lunch, or catch him on the roof, or catch him running as fast as you can, or catch him when he falls, or catch him in flagrante delicto, or catch him awake, or catch him red-handed, or catch him midstride, or catch him careless, or catch him off-sides, or catch him off guard. Notice how that although some of those apply to catch, many others apply to him. Then reconsider which is which in off guard, which is like sleeping.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 13:35
  • @tchrist: You had me at sleeping. Very clear examples. Thank you. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 13:41
  • @tchrist: They won't catch you napping, will they? :) Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 23:37

5 Answers 5


At http://media.leidenuniv.nl/legacy/console17-asada.pdf is an in-depth discussion of structures involving object complements (which structures are also said by some to involve secondary predication) . I'll just quote the introduction, which I believe gives a clear and valid classification (though the rest of the article goes on to recommend alternative analyses!):

Secondary predication is commonly classified into the two types of constructions –– depictives and resultatives –– illustrated in (1) and (2) respectively.

(1) Depictives      a. John left the room angry. ‘subject-oriented’
                                  b. John ate the fish raw. ‘object-oriented’

(2) Resultatives      John hammered the metal flat.

So the 'catch me off guard' example would be classified as 'depictive' and 'object-orient[at]ed'. 'Raw' is obviously an adjective modifying 'fish', and correspondingly, 'off guard' (or 'off my guard', equally acceptable) is what some would call a multi-word adjective , and some would label an adjectival – a string doing the job of an adjective (and some would include adjectives as a sub-set of adjectivals, rather than a parallel set).

There can often be some valid soul-searching as to whether a modifier is truly modifying a nearby noun or a nearby verb (if either):

The striker shot wide. (adverb or adjective?)

He is a mere youth. (Are some youths not mere?) He is merely a youth. (Is there any significant difference in meaning from the previous version?)


It is tempting to see off guard as an adverbial. As such, it would mean ‘My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me in an off guard manner’, but that clearly cannot be. It was neither the aunt nor the manner of catching that was off guard, but the nephew. It follows that off guard is an adjective which postmodifies me.

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    @Neil Coffey. Watchya mean? I rejected the adverbial explanation. In any case, I thought the tendency you refer to was to classify words that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else as adverbs, not as adverbials, which is a description of syntax, not a word class. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 13:32
  • @BarrieEngland: When I read the original sentence, I interpreted it like this: 'My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me in a manner that made me feel off guard'. Which is why I think "off guard" modifies "catch" (since "catch" is the cause). And yet it's clear that "off guard" is something happened to "me" (which I think the term "complement" can be used just fine here). Do you think so? Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 14:01
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    @Damkerng T. It's like the example tchrist points out: He caught me sleeping. That doesn't mean he caught me in a manner that made me feel I was sleeping. It means that I was asleep when he caught me (although caught in this context doesn't mean 'capture', but 'to come upon suddenly'). Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 14:36
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    @Damkerng T. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the adjective off guard is ‘occurring when a person is not mentally watchful; unguarded’. It bears the same relationship to caught as ‘sleeping’ does. The speaker was unguarded at the time of being caught. Being caught didn’t cause him to be unguarded, any more than it caused him, in the other example, to be asleep. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 14:51
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    @BarrieEngland, I thought the OP wanted to know what function off guard has in that sentence. You, on the other hand, are talking about what category/word class (POS) it belongs to. "Adjective" is not a syntactic function.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 0:27

One way of dealing with this structure is to propose something called a small clause, which is effectively a structure encapsulating arguments (e.g. subject, complement) as though there was a verb, but without an actual verb present inside the "clause".

The structure crops up 'on the surface' in various cases such as:

English: They considered [[him] [tall]].

French: Il a [[les yeux] [bleus]].

It can also be argued that it is the underlying structure in various other cases, e.g.:

"Peter is tall"

"Who do they believe responsible"

can be argued to underlyingly consist of structures closer to:

[be [[Peter] [tall]] ]

[believe [[who] [responsible]] ]

(Indeed, in some languages, the verb "be" is actually not necessarily expressed, and the equivalent of "Peter tall" is actually grammatical.)

So, in your sentence, the idea would be that you have a structure such as:

They caught [him off-guard].

where "him off-guard" is in effect a type of clause that together operates as the syntactic object of the main verb.

Another possibility is to analyse "off guard" as what we might call a resultative predicate: in effect, you can argue that there's nothing particularly special about a verb that takes "precisely one object", and that "off guard" is simply one of several complements that a verb can take, just as you find in other cases such as:

Jim bet [Bob] [four pounds].

David gave [Michael] [the book].

Mary made [the cracked vase] [a feature].

I think both analyses have their merits. A problem with the latter analysis is that in many cases of what we might see as resultative predicates, the verb has the option of being unaccusative, in other words you get pairs such as:

The die turned [the material] [red].

[The material] turned [red].

whereas it makes no sense to say "He caught off-guard".

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    Would you like to expand this answer to demonstrate how this technique actually answers the question?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 13:42
  • The OP was asking about the syntactic status of "off guard"; my reply addresses the syntactic status of "off guard". The OP specifically asked whether it was "an objective complement or adjective phrase that modifies ‘me’"; so I suppose strictly, my expansion would be "it is neither of those things". But... so what? Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 16:25
  • Well, I don't see how to apply it to the case in question. I doubt I'm the only one (especially since my comment has got a vote from someone else).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 16:28
  • OK fair enough. I've tried to clarify my answer a bit, and also added another (possibly more problematic) analysis of it simply being an 'extra (resultative) predicate'. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 17:53
  • Obviously, to some extent what is the "right" answer depends on the purpose of your analysis. If you're just stamp collecting, then you may as well use either label. Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 17:55

An adjective phrase and an object complement are two different levels of description, so it is possible (indeed common) for an object complement also to be an adjective phrase.

Here's a simpler example to explain what I mean:

The big man read a long book.

The big man is a noun phrase (one level of description, explaining the grammatical category of the words). It is also a subject (a different level of description, explaining the syntactical role of the phrase).

Now we need to look briefly at what an "object complement" is. We'll start with a "subject complement", because it's easier to explain. A subject complement is some kind of phrase (which may be a single word) which gives information about the subject of a particular type of verb, which we might call "existential" verbs. These are verbs like "to be", "to seem", "to look", which express something about the state of the subject:

The man is tall.
The book is long.

In these cases, tall and long are subject complements: they tell us something about the subject, rather than being objects of the verb. They are not affected by the action of the verb, but they expand on what we know about the subject. Contrast "the man buys a book", where "a book" is the object of the verb "to buy": the book is affected by the action of the verb, but gives no information about the state of the man.

An object complement is like a subject complement, but it gives extra information about the state of the object of a verb, not its subject. So instead of following one of these "existential" or state verbs, it follows the object directly, with the sense of "to be" or a similar verb implied:

They made me angry.

The structure here is subject (They), verb (made), object (me), object complement (angry). Structures which include an object complement like this often (though not always) contain verbs which express doing something physical or abstract to the object:

They called me an idiot.
They painted it red.

So, "object complement" is a structural category, explaining what a word or phrase does in a sentence.

In contrast, "adjective phrase" is more of a formal category. It explains the grammatical category of the key word in the phrase.

So in the example you give, you could argue that we have an adjective phrase ("off guard") which is performing the role of object complement in the sentence - the object being "me".

There are various arguments for and against this analysis, but the answer to the original question is, in summary, that it doesn't have to be one or the other; it could be both.


Grammar is not my strong suit. In fact, most of the terminologies in grammar simply turns me off. I feel terms like object complement or adjectival phrase take away much fun from language learning. The consequence? Grammar is not my strong suit. (It's my bad, not my teachers', anyway.)

To answer the question, which is very simple, since there are only two possible choices, it would be an object complement. An object complement is an adjective that forms part of verb.

In this case, "off guard" is part of "catch", or as I prefer to think simply: "off guard" modifies "catch", not "me". But since "off guard" also complements the object "me", thus the term "object complement".

  • Off guard does not "complement" ( = complete) me, it modifies it. It also does not "complement" the predication (or, traditionally, the verb): catch me is a complete predication. What it "complements" is the idiom -- which is why your question is so interesting! Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 14:40

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