I'd really appreciate some help with my understanding.

My main confusion sprouts from the following sentence:

Obviously, this calls for a thorough examination of the facts.

My first problem is with phrasal verbs - how do we know whether "calls for" is (1) or (2)

(1) V + Particle (2) V + Prepositional Phrase

Is there a 'test' for determining whether it is a phrasal verb? I've been taught the 'particle movement' test, but does this always apply?

My second problem is with the distinction of complements and adjuncts. I believed previously that, if the constituent can be removed with the rest of the sentence still grammatical, then it is a adjunct. E.g. 'of the facts' must be a prepositional adjunct, because you can say

Obviously, this calls for a thorough examination.

However I was told that 'of the facts' can't be an adjunct, because the preposition is 'of'. Is there a specific complement vs adjunct test? Is the preposition 'of' an exception?

I apologise if it seems like I've come asking questions before doing my own research - but it's more that I have conflicting sources of information. Any clarification would be really great.

  • Re: complements vs. adjuncts. Does the noun "examination" require a particular preposition after it? If yes, then it's a complement. cf. an examination of the facts vs. an examination of the facts at the hearing in Congress on Monday.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 20:44
  • The distinction, if any, between "complement" and "adjunct" is rarely helpful, and is difficult to distinguish, as you point out. As for phrasal verbs, if it's transitive, it should undergo particle shift, and call for doesn't: *This calls an examination for. Just a governed preposition, like look at or listen to.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 0:15
  • On the distinction between "complement" and "adjunct", see my answer to a question about it here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/350612/argument-vs-adjunct/…
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 20:44
  • There's a big and important difference. Complements are arguments of the verb, whereas adjuncts are not. Unlike adjuncts, complements must be licensed by an appropriate head. See my answer below.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 15:55

1 Answer 1


Phrasal Verbs:

First, I’d advise you to drop the term 'phrasal verb'. It’s thoroughly misleading. It’s not the whole expression "call for" that is a verb; it’s just the lexeme "call".

Your example, This calls for a thorough examination of the facts is analysed as verb - [prep + O]. It’s a verbal idiom headed by the prepositional verb “call”, where the preposition “for” is specified by the verb.

Particles are intransitive prepositions (plus a few adjectives and verbs) which can freely come between a transitive verb and its direct object. The distinctive property of particles is that they can precede the object but in general they don’t have to, so there is alternation between, say, Ed took off his coat and Ed took his coat off. Now compare that pair with your example This calls for an examination” ~ * This calls an examination for. Clearly "for" is not a particle on two counts: in that example, "for" is a transitive preposition and "call" is an intransitive verb.

Complements vs adjuncts:

Complements in NP structure are virtually restricted to PPs (usually headed by "of") and subordinate clauses. In your example, the PP "of the facts" is complement of the noun "examination". In NPs, dependents with the form of PPs qualify as complements when they are licensed by the particular head noun. In your example, the PP "of the facts" is licensed by "examination". The clearest of cases have one or more of these properties:

(1) The PP corresponds to object or subject NPs, compare the facts examined ~ the examination of the facts.

(2) The choice of preposition is specified by the head noun, as is the case with your example "call for a thorough examination", where "call" specifies "for".

(3) the PP is obligatory because the noun makes little sense without it: "the advent of the steam engine", "the feasibility of the proposal", "a dearth of new ideas" and so on.

Complements are a kind of dependent that must be licensed by the head of the phrase. By contrast, adjuncts require no such licensing; they function as modifiers in clause structure, or as supplements. Obligatory elements are always complements: they are needed to complete the verb phrase; optional elements may be either complements or adjuncts.

Matthews in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics defines complement as “A syntactic element seen as completing the construction of another element”: the syntactic concept construction is preferable to the semantic concept meaning. He goes on to say, more specifically, that it applies to elements which are within the valency of a verb or other lexical unit. And his entry for "valency" is: “The range of syntactic elements either required or specifically permitted by a verb or other lexical unit"– which is equivalent to licensing.

  • is intransitive preposition just another name for an adverb? Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 9:04
  • @Barry Not at all. The items that serve as particles are mostly prepositions, but the class of particles does include some adjectives (They cut short their holiday) and verbs (She let go his hand), but not adverbs.
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 12:17
  • Let me explain why I am here with that question. I was taught as school that phrasal verbs, like take off, prepositional verbs, like listen to, and other structures like take care of are called multiple-word verbs. My understanding is that phrasal verbs like take it off are just a V N structure, off being an adverbial complement, and that prepositional verbs like listen to are just a V PP structure. I looked these terms up in a book but it seems to me the author treats the particle off in take it off as a preposition and the off it as a PP, which contradicts what I have learned. Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 0:25
  • I just read some materials on intransitive prepositions. Now I am totally lost as to why we are still learning and teaching such terms as phrasal verbs and multiple-word verbs in School. Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 0:36
  • @Barry It's all about making the transition from old out-of-date grammar to modern grammar, which is better thought-out and more accurate.There are no such things as phrasal verbs and multiple word verbs. Those terms are thoroughly misleading, and best avoided.
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 7:27

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