I am a new ESL teacher, and I would like some help to understand my student's error so I can better explain WHY it needs to be changed. I can't figure out the "rule" as to why it needs to change. Layman's terms are greatly appreciated if possible!

Here is what my student wrote, "He is working to keep clean and safe the Earth." I know it should be, "He is working to keep the Earth safe and clean," but I can't understand the rationale (or how to put it in kid-friendly terms for my ESL pupils).

Thank you in advance for your help!

  • 2
    What’s the kids’ native language? The direct object comes immediately after the verbal complex (unless topicalised), that’s the rule.
    – Atamiri
    Apr 9, 2018 at 19:16
  • Thank you for your answer! Her native language is Spanish. Why can't the adjectives ("clean" and "safe" I am thinking are the adverbs that are describing the verbs "keeping" and "working") be before the direct object ("the Earth")?
    – Ms. J
    Apr 9, 2018 at 19:28
  • 3
    It's because "the earth" is direct object of "keep", and the adjective phrase "clean and safe" is an objective predicative complement, Such complements must follow, not precede, the direct object that they refer to.
    – BillJ
    Apr 9, 2018 at 20:25
  • I think we can improve this question and get a properly structured answer , because it can be used again for reference in a similar question. Apr 10, 2018 at 0:01
  • 3
    You might like to visit the Language Learning or English Language Learners sites.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 10, 2018 at 3:20

4 Answers 4


There are a number of what are called "small verbs" in English, which are used in many idioms and constructions, often with special syntactic provisions. These verbs include keep, make, like, want, do, give, take, go, come, and have, among others. And this is one (probably at least two, as the possibility of infinitive to be shows) of those construction types.

This type of idiomatic small verb construction occurs with the verbs keep, make, want, and like.

  • SmallVerb + NP + PredicateAdjective
    (to be may or may not appear before PredicateAdjective, depending on SmallVerb)

  • He likes/makes/keeps/wants + it + tidy here.

  • We like/make/keep/want + the Earth + clean and safe.
  • She keeps/wants + the American dream + preserved.
    (I.e, like and make don't work with this combination of NP + PredicateAdjective)


  • He likes/wants it to be tidy here is grammatical, but
  • *He makes/keeps it to be tidy here is not grammatical.
    (I.e, keep and make don't work with to be before PredicateAdjective)

In "He is working to keep the Earth safe and clean," there are several subject-predicate relations. (1) "he" & "working ...", (2) "he" & "keep ...", and (3) "the earth" & "safe and clean". In English, subjects precede predicates, and so for each of the three subject/predicate pairs in your example, the subject should precede the predicate. And for all three, the subject does precede its predicate.

In particular, "the earth" (subject) should precede "safe and clean" (predicate).

You might reasonably doubt whether there are actually 3 different subject/predicate relations in your example. To see that there are, consider the 3 different interpretations of "for every day of the year", if we add that to the example: "He is working to keep the Earth safe and clean for every day of the year." Does he work every day, does he keep earth safe and clean every day, or is the earth safe and clean every day of the year? There are 3 possible interpretations, because there are 3 different predications that the adverbial could modify.

  • How is that a "kid-friendly" explanation that the OP asked for? "Safe and clean" may be a sematic predicate, but syntactically it is a complement of "keep".
    – BillJ
    Apr 11, 2018 at 12:37
  • @BillJ, You seem very attached to the terminology you've learned. Of course "safe and clean" is a complement of "keep", but that's just an uninformative term. I gave evidence in my answer that it is a predication. Do you have any evidence to offer for a contrary view? Do you have anything to offer at all that predicts the order of "the earth" and "clean and safe" (as my answer does)?
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 11, 2018 at 14:16
  • The OP asked for a kid-friendly explanation, not a theoretical one. And I did agree that it is a predicate (albeit a semantic, not syntactic, one one), but the point I'm making is that your answer will almost certainly go over the kids' heads, and that's no good. My answer below gives (I hope) a rule that the kids can understand and remember, not a theoretical one. Teaching is all about explaining things in an understandable way that matches the age/ability of the students. Not all kids are linguists, you know! (ps. maybe this question should be on ELU, or even ELL)
    – BillJ
    Apr 11, 2018 at 15:02
  • @BillJ, Giving a rule doesn't explain anything.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 11, 2018 at 16:27

Transitive clauses, the kind with a transitive verb and a direct object, can sometimes contain a further constituent called an objective predicative complement that refers to the direct object. It is typically an adjective phrase, as in your example, but it can also be a noun phrase.

The objective PC occurs after the direct object, not before it. Reversing the order either changes the meaning, or yields an ungrammatical sentence:

[1a] We painted the fence blue.

[1b] We painted the blue fence.

[2a] She made him a good husband.

[2b] * She made a good husband him.

In these pairs, [1a] tells us that we painted the fence, and we painted it a blue colour. But [1b] has a different meaning; it tells us we painted the blue fence, but it does not tell us what colour we painted it – perhaps we painted it green or white, who knows?

In [2a] we understand that her efforts resulted in him being a good husband, but [2b] where the predicative precedes the object is ungrammatical.


From my (psycholinguistic) perspective, the explanation here is not from some rules of syntax, but rather from a tendency of the native speaker to avoid so called garden path sentences, especially in a spoken language. Rules emerge as secondary to the primary intent to convey the information unambiguously and efficiently.

He is working to keep clean and safe...

At this point, it is a clear and unambiguous message that the subject's goal is to keep clean and stay safe, and this is why he keeps a job, as opposed to becoming a jobless and/or homeless person, getting lice and living in an unsafe place.

...the Earth.

The Earth??? What does the Earth have to do with that? Ah! A light bulb goes on! Go back to the beginning of the garden path that led you the wrong way, and start decoding all over. This is probably the primary reason why such sentences are not valid in English. Other languages can employ other devices, applying case, gender such that safe and clean cannot deictically refer back to the subject himself, or a morphosyntactic marker to mark keep as transitive so that the recipient of the speech expects the object, or other tricks; all this to avoid breaking down the sense late in a sentence, but the general this maxim of the least surprise holds across many languages.

  • Then why does adding a relative clause to "the Earth" make the construction more acceptable? "He is working to keep clean and safe the Earth that he has always worshiped."
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 12, 2018 at 23:59
  • 1
    @GregLee The effect is overridden by the preference to put heavy constituents at the end of the sentence, perhaps? Apr 13, 2018 at 6:53
  • @GregLee, I do indeed perceive your example as more acceptable, but it still seems to have that garden path property. No doubt there is a syntax theory (or maybe a couple of competing ones) that would explain why. But the question that I am answering is how to explain all this to the ESL student... A native speaker has a theory of recepient's mind: when producing speech, he also parses it in sort of a feedback loop. Second language learners are not yet equipped with that, and easily produce garden paths or even homophonic ambiguities. I want to share an amazing example from experience...
    – kkm
    Apr 13, 2018 at 8:15
  • @WavesWashSands, Yes, but the point here is that it seems to have nothing to do with avoiding a garden path.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 13, 2018 at 8:23
  • ...involving the article, another topic notoriously hard both to grasp for English learners and to put into concise rules for their teachers (but if you know of a syntax theory that explains all rules, exceptions and exceptions from exceptions, please please let me know! No kidding!). The example. A non-native speaker's recording:“The only way to get there is by a helicopter” (a is out of place). The vast majority of native speakers perceived “...is buy a helicopter,” although the parse makes very little sense, as people do not routinely purchase helicopters. Syntax wins, semantics loses.
    – kkm
    Apr 13, 2018 at 8:25

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