Adjuncts in Phrases

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The term "Complement" is not simply another word for the "post-Head string" -- post-Head strings are not always Complements. This is because the post-Head string is not always required to complete the meaning of the Head. Consider:

[NP My sister, who will be twenty next week,] has got a new job.

Here the relative clause who will be twenty next week is certainly a post-Head string, but it is not a Complement. Notice that it contributes additional but optional information about the Head sister. In this example, the post-Head string is an ADJUNCT. Like the other Adjuncts we looked at earlier, it contributes additional, optional information.

Adjuncts can occur in all the phrase types, and they may occur both before and after the Head. The following table shows examples of each type:


Phrase Type


Typical Adjuncts


Noun Phrase (NP)





the books on the shelf

the old lady

cocoa, which is made from cacao beans

Verb Phrase (VP)



she rapidly lost interest

he stood on the patio
Adjective Phrase (AP)


AdvP it was terribly difficult
Prepositional Phrase (PP)


AdvP completely out of control


Complements and Adjuncts Compared

Complements differ from Adjuncts in two important respects:

1. Complements immediately follow the Head

In most phrases, the Complement must immediately follow the Head:

David [VP plays [Complement the piano] [Adjunct beautifully ]]

In contrast, the reverse order is not possible:

*David [VP plays [Adjunct beautifully] [Complement the piano]]


fond [Complement of biscuits] [Adjunct with coffee]

~*fond [Adjunct with coffee] [Complement of biscuits]

Complements, then, bear a much closer relationship to the Head than Adjuncts do.

2. Adjuncts are "stackable"

In theory at least, we can "stack" an indefinite number of Adjuncts, one after another, within a phrase. For example, consider the NP:

the book on the shelf by Dickens with the red cover that you gave me...

In contrast with this, phrases are limited in the number of Complements that they can take. In fact, they usually have only one Complement. Ditransitive verb phrases are an exception to this. Recall that they take two Complements:

We [VP gave [Complement James] [Complement a present]]

In the following NP we have bracketed two strings.

the use [of computers] [in schools]

Decide whether each string is a Complement or an Adjunct

of computers Complement   
in schools Complement   



 More on Functions in Phrases...

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