Here are two NPs:

their incredible story of the trip in space (complement)

the noisy yellow airplanes that scared the children in the yard (post modifier)

Why is it that certain nouns takes modifiers and others complements? In this case what's the difference between the nouns story and airplanes?


2 Answers 2


When you post a question next time, please mention what theory it is based on. Do not assume that the terms (and implicit assumptions) are necessarily shared and/or easily recognized by everyone. Your OP is a good case in point.

It looks like your question is based on Cognitive Grammar.

In Cognitive Grammar,

a complement is understood as "a conceptually autonomous component structure that elaborates the profile determinant, which is conceptually dependent",


a modifier is "a conceptually dependent component structure that is elaborated by the profile determinant, which is conceptually autonomous" (Evans and Green 2006: 587).

Note the key word "conceptual," because this is very different from other formal syntax theories.

For instance, from the point of view of generative syntax, in both of your examples, we can see complements.

their incredible story of the trip in space, [of the trip in space] is complement;

the noisy yellow airplanes that scared the children in the yard, [that scared the children in the yard] is a complement clause.

Also, I don't think the term "modifier" is very common in generative syntax and is used as an umbrella term for anything attached to the head, the more common opposition being complement-specifier-adjunct (all of those are different types of modifiers).

In some other syntactic theories, the difference between a complement (sometimes also called an argument) and a modifier is that complements are obligatory (cf. *their incredible story of) whereas modifiers are optional (their incredible story).

Putting theoretical differences aside, I am afraid you didn't quite understand your professor or textbook very well. For instance, you ask us, "Why is it that certain nouns takes modifiers and others complements?"

The thing is that all English nouns can take (select) complements and what you call "modifiers":

their story that scared me a lot (complement clause; your "post-modifier")

their story of the trip in space (complement; your "complement")

their incredible story (specifier; your "modifier")

  • Thanks for your answer, it was very helpful. The book my professor uses is Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax by Noel Burton-Roberts. I am sorry if it seemed unclear, it sounded a little strange to me as well, but I know that is the exact question she asked, and I am still puzzled because when I asked her to explain (after an exam) she said to find out for ourselves. I joined this website in hopes that somebody else would know what that question means since I never saw any explanation in the book.
    – Bojana P.
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 20:11
  • I just wanted to add that after doing some more reading I think the distinction made in my textbook is between that of one-way and two-way dependency. I see you mentioned something about the relationships in the phrase (obligatory/optional parts or complements/modifiers as explained by Noel-Burton Roberts) which I think answers my question.
    – Bojana P.
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 16:21

I don't have a firm grasp of the distinction you're asking about, but I can give you an outline of my understanding of McCawley's account in The Syntactic Phenomena of English. It is based on a relation between the structure of NPs and the structure of sentences, as we can observe it in the process of nominalization. N' (N-bar) in a NP corresponds to V' (V-bar) in nominalization.

An N' is either built from another N', or consists of a N with possible complements, as a V' is either built from another V', or consists of a V with possible complements. One common V complement that we're familiar with is the direct object. The corresponding argument in a NP is the "of"-complement of a N. Occasionally, we can find a direct correspondence between sentential and nominal:

"Henry fathered Louis." (the V' "fathered Louis" has the V complement "Louis")
"Henry is the father of Louis." (the N' "father of Louis" has the N complement "of Louis")

In sentence structure, V' modifiers are adverbs, which correspond in NP structure to adjectives and other N' modifiers.

Henry [V' [V' fathered Louis] enthusiastically].
Henry was [NP the [N' enthusiastic [N' father of Louis] ] ].

Thus, nouns with complements correspond to transitive verbs.

  • Thank you so much for your answer, however I still have trouble distinguishing the two. My book talks about noun-complement clauses that complement only abstract nouns, and that's as far as my understanding gets.
    – Bojana P.
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 20:18
  • It might help to look at subcategorization restrictions between the head and complement. There should be no such restrictions between head and modifier. Chomsky introduced the distinction between subcategorization and selection in Aspects of the theory of syntax, and later McCawley argued that selectional restrictions were not grammatical in nature.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 21:05
  • Thanks, I'll look into that as well. I also talked to a classmate that came to some information that the answer to my question was deverbal nouns. Does that make any sense to you? I am studying English as a foreign language, so that also contributes to the problems with my understanding of the syntax. I mentioned in a previous comment that the book my professor uses is Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax by Noel Burton-Roberts (if it's of any help.)
    – Bojana P.
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 18:14
  • It makes some sense to me. I pointed out in my answer the parallel between verb complements and noun complements. If you start with a transitive verb with a direct object and change the verb into a corresponding noun, you should expect the original direct object to turn up as a complement to the noun.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 18:33
  • So I did some more reading about the relationship between complement and head and modifier and head. According to Noel-Burton Roberts one-way dependency is called modification, and the two-way dependency is complementation. This is shown through examples such as: their rather dubious jokes (one-way dependency) and beside a stream (two-way dependency), but I still have trouble analyzing the sentences above through this approach. Do you have any opinion on this? Thanks!
    – Bojana P.
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 16:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.