Tuesday, 10 June 2008

On (in)complete predications

A correspondent writes to ask about the difference between 'complete' and 'incomplete' predication, which she and her colleagues have found confusing.

I'm not surprised. It's not a pair of terms I come across much these days. Terms based on 'completeness' are more associated with Victorian grammars, and they rather fell into disrepute when structural linguistics developed. But the underlying concept is still an important part of any modern grammar, even though analyses vary somewhat.

A verb which can stand alone as a predicate (i.e. without any complementation) would be a 'complete' predicate, in these terms. It's gone, I complained, and so on.

An 'incomplete' predicate would be a verb which requires some sort of complementation for the sentence to be grammatical. In the terms I like to use, this would be an object (a transitive verb, e.g. I saw a dog), an adverbial (e.g. They kept out of trouble) or a complement (in a narrow sense, e.g. I am ready).

Notice that the class a verb belongs to depends on its meaning: I kept a cat is different from I kept out of trouble. Similarly, we need to distinguish between I'm eating and I'm eating a cake. In other words, we're talking here about different uses of verbs - a more helpful way of thinking, to my mind, than to set up an absolute contrast, such as is implied by 'complete' vs 'incomplete'.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (§§16.20ff) has an excellent listing of verbs in different complementation functions.


Rosa said...

This has been really clarifying. Thank you very much indeed.

Anonymous said...

David, I met Davy Jones at OR airport in South Africa. He was coming back from Zimbabwe and I was coming back from my father's funeral. My mother had died three months before and he got up in the middle of the airport and played a lament on his whistle for them.

He was a lovely guy and told me all about the poet John Bradbourne and how you were his advocate.

Actually, I studied at UCL with Greenbaum. I did my dissertation on noun complementation. So what you write on incomplete predications is interesting to me.


DC said...

Great story, and thanks for the link to the fuller account on your blog. It never ceases to amaze me how language issues can raise all sorts of new directions. Yes, it was through Casey Jones that I first encountered the writing of John Bradburne, in the early 90s, and I've been editing his remarkable poetic oeuvre ever since. The job is almost finished, actually, and the results can be seen on the website John Bradburne. He is without a doubt the most prolific poet there has ever been in the English language.

Unknown said...

hi, how can I distinguish between an object or a complement.
And then, the verb "go" really gets on my nerves. In "He goes to London", is it an intransitive verb of complete or incomplete predication?
I´d love to read your explanation. and to supply some examples of IVCP, IVIP, TVCP and TVIP

DC said...

I don't use this blog to repeat explanations available elsewhere. Life's too short. The object/complement distinction is copiously illustrated in my Rediscover Grammar, Discover Grammar, and Making Sense of Grammar. The distinction between complete and incomplete is ultimately an intuitive one. What you have to do is ask yourself whether this sentence is acceptable without the adverbial. Can we say in English 'He goes'? If yes, the predication is complete. If no, it's incomplete. Compare 'He put the book on the table', where 'He put' is definitely incomplete.