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The answers and comments beneath my question about the sentence “He kept a black book in his desk” seemed to agree that “in his desk” acts as a complement and not as an adjunct in that sentence. But what about a sentence like “In his desk, he kept a black book” or “In his desk he kept a black book” (both punctuation styles seem possible to me; I don't know if that's significant, or if other people would have the same judgement)?

The web page “Complements and Adjuncts” says that a PP complement to a verb cannot be preposed:

  • John decided on the boat.
  • On the boat, John decided.

Notice the first example is ambiguous. It either means (a) that John's decision took place on the boat, or (b) that of two alternatives John was considering (say, a boat or a coat hanger), John chose the boat-alternative. The second example has only the (a) reading. We usually explain this by saying that on reading (b) the PP on the boat is a complement, and that verbs don’t like having their complement PPs preposed. This is a well-accepted test, but it only works reliably for verb heads and PP modifiers.

As far as I can tell, “In his desk, he kept a black book” meets the criteria for this test: it has a PP modifier and a verb head. So why can “in his desk” be placed at the start? I don't see a contrast in meaning between this sentence and the one with the other word order; in both sentences, it seems to me that “in his desk” describes the location of the book.

Is this really a "well-accepted test"? If so, is there some relevant exception to this test for certain types of complements?

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    Complements of verbs can certainly be preposed, e.g., "A vase of flowers was on her desk" ~ "On her desk was a vase of flowers", where the locative PP "on her desk" is a preposed complement of the verb "be". And with some other verbs too, e.g. "I kept a gun in the drawer" ~ "In the drawer I kept a gun". The claim is that the latter is structurally very similar to "I kept the gun clean", where "clean" is indisputably an objective PC of "keep". – BillJ Jul 15 '18 at 7:12
  • @BillJ: In that case, what is the proper way to apply the test mentioned on the linked page? It seems to have exceptions that are not mentioned there. – brass tacks Jul 15 '18 at 8:36
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    Adjuncts can be preposed, just as complements can: "[When I was at school], I wasn't allowed to watch TV" (adjunct). – BillJ Jul 16 '18 at 6:54
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I don't think a simple binary distinction between adjunct and complement can distinguish between those phrases which can be preposed and those that cannot. Your example "He kept a black book in his desk" can be extended to provide a "trajectory" or path to follow for where in the desk the book is to be found -- "a black book taped to the bottom of the third up in the second row of drawers to the left of the desk's well". Scrambling the order of the points in this path will make the sentence harder to understand, but I think there is no exact cutoff point. There is a brief discussion of trajectories from John Ross somewhere in the collection of Ross's work on John Lawler's web site.

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The original example is already somewhat ambiguous, I should say. Cf.:

Some of their possessions had to be sold, but it was difficult to decide on which. On the Rolls Royce, John decided immediately. On the boat, he decided later; he just couldn't bring himself to say goodbye to her at that time.

To counter this, it could be argued that decided on the boat is not a complementary relation. But I believe even those phrases that are incontestably complements can still be preposed, such as direct objects:

Her mother was a darling, but her father I didn't like.

I think it makes more sense to say 1.) not only, as Greg does, that the boundary between complements and adjuncts is gradual and never absolute, 2.) but also that complements are merely less likely to be preposed despite being generally preposable just like adjuncts, circumstances permitting. So preposability would not seem to be a good absolute test for complementarity.

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  • Oops, somehow I didn't notice this when it was originally posted. "On the Rolls Royce, John decided immediately" doesn't really feel like a natural word order to me, although it's not blatantly wrong. The linked page does seem to specify that this test "only works reliably for verb heads and PP modifiers", so the alleged rule doesn't seem to be inconsistent with the "her father I didn't like" example. – brass tacks Aug 12 '18 at 15:48

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