What Are Complements? (with Examples)

Complements (in English Grammar)

Complement is the term used for a word or words that are needed to complete the meaning of an expression.

Most phrases and clauses will include a complement of some kind. If you can't remove it from your sentence, then it's likely to be a complement. This is how complements differ from adjuncts. Adjuncts are optional as they are usually just descriptive. Complements are not optional. They are essential to ensure understanding.

complements in grammar

Easy Examples of Complements

The word complement most commonly crops up in the terms subject complement and object complement.

Subject Complement. A subject complement is the adjective, noun, or pronoun that follows a linking verb. (Examples of linking verbs include to be, to smell, to seem, to taste, to look.)

Here are two easy examples of subject complements. (The subject complements are shaded and the subjects are bold.)
  • Lee is weak.
  • (Lee is the subject, is is the linking verb, and the adjective weak is the subject complement. It tells us something about the subject. It completes the meaning.)
  • John was a chicken.
  • (John is the subject, was is the linking verb, and the noun phrase a chicken is the subject complement. It tells us something about the subject. It completes the meaning.)
Object Complement. An object complement is the adjective, noun, or pronoun that follows a direct object (shown in bold) to rename the direct object or state what it has become.

Here are two easy examples of object complements. (The subject complements are shaded and the objects are bold.)
  • The vote made John's position untenable.
  • (Here, John's position is the direct object of the verb made, and the adjective untenable is the object complement that completes the meaning. The adjective untenable tells us something about the direct object (John's position). It can't be removed because it completes the meaning. This is an example of an object complement.)
  • We voted John chairman.
  • (Here, John is the direct object of the verb voted, and the noun chairman is the object complement that completes the meaning. The noun chairman tells us something about the direct object (John). It can't be removed because it completes the meaning.)
Remember that you can find the direct object by finding the verb (here, made and voted) and asking "what?" or "whom?".

Read more about direct objects.

Real-Life Examples of Subject Complements

Here are two real-life examples with subject complements:
  • It always seems impossible until it is done. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)
  • (It is the subject, seems is the linking verb, and impossible is the subject complement. In the clause until it's done, it is the subject, is is the linking verb, and done is the subject complement.)
  • The flower that smells the sweetest is shy and lowly. (Poet William Wordsworth)
  • (This example is complicated because there's a subject complement embedded within the subject (i.e., the bold text). In the bold text, that is the subject, smells is the linking verb, and the sweetest is the subject complement. Now, let's reverse up a bit. The flower that smells the sweetest is the subject, is is the linking verb, and shy and lowly is the subject complement. Hey, if you followed that, you've got subject complements nailed!)

Real-Life Examples of Object Complements

Here are two real-life examples with object complements:
  • I don't need drugs to make my life tragic. (Musician Eddie Vedder)
  • (Here, my life is the direct object of the verb make, and tragic is the object complement that completes the meaning.)
  • The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind. (Philosopher John Stuart Mill)
  • (Here, mediocrity is the direct object of the verb render, and noun phrase the ascendant power among mankind is the object complement that completes the meaning.)
Let's look at one more before we really throw a cat among the pigeons. This example includes a subject complement and an object complement.
  • What makes life dreary is the want of a motive. (Novelist George Eliot)
  • (What makes life dreary is the subject, is is the linking verb, and noun phrase the want of a motive is the subject complement.)
  • What makes life dreary is the want of a motive.
  • (Life is the direct object of the verb makes, and dreary is the object complement that completes the meaning of the clause.)

More about Complements

In the examples above, the subject complements complete the meaning about subjects, and the object complements complete the meaning about objects. That seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Well, unfortunately, it gets a little more complicated because the term complement is used by some grammarians in a much wider sense. They like to remind the rest of us that complements are just the words needed to complete the meanings of expressions.

Therefore, rather unhelpfully, the term subject complement is also used for a complement that is a subject, and, equally unhelpfully, the term object complement is used a complement that is an object. Look at these examples:
  • The manager cut John's salary.
  • (Here, the noun phrase The manager is the subject of the verb cut. As it's a subject and a complement (i.e., essential for understanding), you might see it referred to as a subject complement. It actually complements the verb. So, in a logical world, it would be called a verb complement. But, it's not.)
  • The manager cut John's salary.
  • (Here, the noun phrase John's salary is the direct object of the verb cut. As it's an object and a complement (i.e., essential for understanding), you might see it referred to as an object complement. As with the subject complement, it actually complements the verb. So, in a logical world, it would be called a verb complement. But, again, it's not.)
Used in this wider sense, complement can also be the words that follow a preposition (bold).
  • With his help.
  • On her own.
Here, the complements are the objects of prepositions.

A complement can also be the word or words that form part of phrasal verb. (In these examples, the main verb of the phrasal verb is shown in bold.)
  • Break down
  • Cross out
  • Check up on
  • Look out for
So, be aware that there are two different scopes for the term complement. Here are two more examples to explain the two scopes:

Scope 1. (This is what 99% of people mean.)
  • Lee is hungry.
  • (Hungry is a subject complement. It follows a linking verb to describe the subject.)
  • Lee licked the plate clean.
  • (Clean is an object complement. It tells us what the object has become.)
Scope 2. (Just be aware that you might encounter the terms subject complement and object complement used in this way.)
  • Lee is hungry.
  • (Lee could be described as the subject complement. It's a subject, and it's a complement, i.e., essential for meaning.)
  • Lee licked the plate clean.
  • (The plate could be described as an object complement. It's an object, and it's a complement, i.e., essential for meaning.)
Remember this much. Complements are not optional. They're essential to ensure understanding. This is how complements differ from adjuncts.

Why Should I Care about Complements?

Provided we're talking about the way that most people think of complements (i.e., Scope 1), you have to say that there's not much value in learning about complements because native English speakers rarely mess up their complements. However, if you're learning a language (like Russian) that puts it's complements in a different case (the instrumental case in the case of Russian), then you might want to pay a bit more attention to spotting complements.

That said, there are two noteworthy points linked to complements.

(Point 1) Don't use an adverb as a subject complement.

A subject complement is an adjective, noun, or pronoun. It's never an adverb.
  • You will likely be blamed for making the narcissist feel badly.
  • (This is an extract from a self-help website. To feel is a linking verb. Badly is the subject complement. It should be the adjective bad not the adverb badly.)
Ironically, this mistake occurs most commonly with people who consciously think about whether they should be using adjectives or adverbs. Spotting that feel (or whatever linking verb) is a verb, they look to modify it with an adverb. What they fail to do is differentiate between a linking verb and an action verb.

Look at this old joke:
  • My dog has no nose.
    How does he smell?

    Terrible.
If you're telling this joke, make sure you say terrible not terribly. Consider these:
  • My dog smells terribly.
  • (There's no subject complement here. This means the dog is terrible at smelling. It does not mean the dog is smelly, which is the twist of the punchline.)
  • My dog smells terrible.
  • (Now we have a subject complement, and now we have a smelly dog.)

(Point 2) You can say "It is I" or "It is me."

Under traditional rules, personal pronouns (like I, she, and he) that are subject complements are written in the subjective case (like I, she, and he) not in the objective case (like me, her and him). This means that those who insist on writing "It is I" or "It was he" have tradition on their side. However, those who'd rather write "It is me" or "It was him" have overwhelming common usage on their side.

Here's the bottom line: If you think "It was he" doesn't sounds pretentious, use that construction. If you think it does, don't. Everyone's a winner.

Interactive Test
 

See Also

What is an object complement? What is a subject complement? What is the object of a preposition? What are phrases? What are clauses? What are adjuncts? What are adjectives? What is a noun phrase? What is a subject? What is a direct object? What are gerunds? Glossary of grammatical terms