In most grammars, an adjunct is differentiated from a complement in that the former modifies something whereas the latter complements something. But is it really the case that what an adjunct does is modify something?

For example, here are a couple of sentences from CGEL (page 222):

[18] i She treated us remarkably well. [obligatory: complement]

ii She carried out all the duties remarkably well. [optional: adjunct]

Here, the adverb phrase (AdvP) remarkably well is a complement of treated us in [i] and an adjunct of carried out all the duties in [ii]. But does the AdvP in [ii] really modify carried out all the duties in any way, shape or form? All it does is simply describe the manner in which she carried out all the duties. It doesn't modify even slightly the fact that she carried out all the duties.

In fact, modify something is what the AdvP in [i] does to treated us, the meaning of which would be different without the AdvP in [i]. Therefore, I believe that the terms modify/modifier/modification should not be used to describe the function of an adjunct, because these terms actually describe the very function of a complement such as the AdvP in [i].

So, I was wondering why grammarians would even use these terms modify/modifier/modification when they describe the function of an adjunct. Am I missing something here?


Thanks to StoneyB's comments, I've gotten to know that the word 'modify' used to mean 'limit, restrict' when first adopted as a grammar term, and that that meaning has been mostly bleached over time. Since 'modify' mainly means 'change or alter' in the present-day English, I think it'll inevitably lead to confusion when the same term is used in grammar not as 'change or alter,' which describes what complements do in grammar, but as 'limit, restrict', which describes what adjuncts do in grammar.

Considering this confusion, why not abandon the term 'modify' altogether as a grammar term? Or am I the only one who thinks this is unnecessarily confusing?

  • I think 'modify' is being used as a syntactic term here, not a semantic one. Semantically, 'remarkably well' doesn't have anything to do with 'all', but syntactically, 'remarkably well' can be said to 'modify' the entire phrase. I don't really know a good definition of 'modify' - I think it's just a fairly informal term that's used by grammarians to describe the function of optional elements in relation to the constituent that they depend on. I'd be very happy to be corrected on that though :P Oct 20, 2017 at 9:49
  • @WavesWashSands Even syntactically, the AdvP in [ii] doesn't change or alter the preceding verb phrase one bit. That's why it's called an 'adjunct' in the first place. I don't know what you mean by 'modify' being 'an informal term', but the terms 'modify/modifier/modification' appear in virtually every serious linguistics paper as well as in every major grammar, as far as I know.
    – JK2
    Oct 20, 2017 at 10:16
  • By 'informal' I just mean 'without a clear definition' - I figured that if the authors had defined the term 'modify', you wouldn't be asking this question. A word can be used widely without a clear definition (just read... er, every other paper by Martin Haspelmath :P.) Anyway, I think it's clear that 'remarkably well' is modifying, or qualifying, the action of carrying out - why don't you think it is? Oct 20, 2017 at 10:22
  • The dominant modern sense of modify to mean "change, alter" emerged only at the end of the 18th century. The dominant sense of modify when it entered grammatical discourse was "limit, restrain"--compare moderate. Oct 20, 2017 at 12:32
  • @StoneyB Thanks. And somehow its original sense of "limit, restrain" vanished in the Present-day English except in grammatical discourse?
    – JK2
    Oct 20, 2017 at 12:53

1 Answer 1


Adjuncts do modify verbs: how was the action done - well or poorly?

The bigger problem is with complements: "The waiter treated me well." differs from "The doctor treated me [well]." in that the first 'well' is obligatory ("The waiter treated me" would mean that my meal was free!), but the second is not ("The doctor treated me").

Both forms (adverbial or complement) could use the same storage method, with the only difference being idiomatic, so arguing about which is which may be a waste of time.

  • The fact that the first 'well' is obligatory means that the first 'well' changes or alters the meaning of the VP 'treated me'. On the contrary, the fact that the second 'well' is not obligatory means that the second 'well' doesn't change or alter the meaning of the VP, and that it simply limit/restrain the VP. Now that the term 'modify' happens to almost always mean 'change or alter' in ordinary use, we are essentially using a term that means 'change or alter' as a term that does not mean 'change or alter'. How is this correcting the obvious confusion a waste of time is just beyond me.
    – JK2
    Oct 23, 2017 at 5:23
  • The first 'well' changes the meaning of 'treated' by ruling out an idiom. Is that the only case where I should use the word 'modify'?
    – amI
    Oct 24, 2017 at 20:24
  • When the second 'well' doesn't change or alter the meaning of the VP 'treated me', why should you use the word 'modify' especially when what the first 'well' does is exactly that.
    – JK2
    Oct 25, 2017 at 1:26
  • I take your point, but I'm more interested in how phrases might be stored in the brain -- I doubt that the storage method of either 'well' is affected by the choice of verb (but rather that the previous storage of an idiom affects interpretation of the later phrases only when they are recalled). I'm asking you what cases justify the word 'modify' -- is it only idioms and perhaps phrasal verbs?
    – amI
    Oct 26, 2017 at 19:29
  • I don't care if you think of an expression as an idiom or a phrasal verb. That's not what it's about. It's about distinguishing 'complements' from 'adjuncts' and using the term 'modify' for the latter when in normal usage 'modify' means what the former does, i.e., 'alter or change.'
    – JK2
    Oct 27, 2017 at 1:46

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