What I'm talking about is when a string of prepositional phrases take the object of the previous one as their antecedent, and where the entire string is linked back to the original antecedent, a noun or a verb or an adjective.

Linking back to an adjective:

John was happy about his acceptance as a member of the varsity team.

Linking back to a verb:

These tiny flowers transform into pulp-filled pods about the size of rugby balls.

Linking back to a noun:

I need a book about medical conditions in children from Zimbabwe.

The order of the phrases is fixed, it cannot change without breaking the sentence or producing a different meaning or nonsense. The chain functions as a single unit to modify the original antecedent.

This is very different from modifying phrases that form independent relations with a verb, noun or adjective. The order of these phrases can change without changing the meaning of the sentence (just an observation).

Linking back to a verb (independent adverbials):

I teach at a university in the morning during the summer months every other year.

Linking back to a noun (independent noun modifiers):

Max observed the painting on the wall at the museum in the main hall.

Linking back to an adjective (independent adjective modifiers):

He was distinguished in his field for his achievements with an award.

The order of the phrases is not fixed, it can change without changing the meaning of the sentence. Each phrase has an independent relation to original antecedent.

This seems like a very significant different in syntax and I haven't been able to find much that addresses this phenomena.

I apologize if my terminology is off - please feel free to offer corrections.

How is this feature of the language analyzed in linguistics?

  • at University, ob-*serve the painting, *dis-*tinguished with an award. The last one is arkward because there's strong precedence for *ad-ward as the head verb.
    – vectory
    Nov 4, 2019 at 12:12
  • Not sure what you're getting at - can you be a tad more specific? Nov 4, 2019 at 12:17
  • oh, I accidentally the markup. Anyhow, I can only return the question, because I'm not sure what you are trying to say with your markup, and why you omitted it in the other examples
    – vectory
    Nov 4, 2019 at 12:21
  • In the sentence that are marked up I was drawing attention to he dependencies, and since there is none in the latter set, I omitted it. Nov 4, 2019 at 12:55

1 Answer 1


It's an interesting question, and my answer is that you are noticing two different syntactic phenomena merging together. The differences are both structural (which phrases are constituents) and in the types of attachment between phrases (adjuncts vs. complements).

In your first three examples, the later prepositional phrases are not modifying the main clause, but rather the phrase they are immediately nested in. To give an example with things bracketed, each bracket is a phrase that can be used as its own noun phrase constituent.

I need [a book about [medical conditions in [children from Zimbabwe]]].

"from Zimbabwe" is telling you where the children are, not where the book is, etc.

In the second set of examples, the phrases are not part of the clause they are next to, but rather refer back to the original phrase they are modifying. The bracketing I am using here is highlighting the main phrase and the prepositional phrases modifying it.

Max observed [the painting [on the wall] [at the museum] [in the main hall]].

Notice that "at the museum" is telling you where the painting is, not where the wall is ("the wall at the museum" is not a constituent).

The other phenomenon is that there are two different types of modifying going on here. Some of those prepositional phrases are "adjuncts" to the phrases they are in, and some are "complements."

An adjunct is a modifier that does not change the core meaning of the phrase ("the painting on the wall" does not give you a different object than "the painting"). You can have multiple adjuncts modifying the same object, and tend to be reörderable (the second set of phrases all have at least 2 adjuncts).

A complement tends to change the core meaning of the phrase they are a part of ("the size" does not mean "the size of rugby balls"), and is sometimes even mandatory ("*I depend" is not a good sentence; it needs to be "I depend on something"). Complements tend to occur at most once for each head, and when you have both complements and adjuncts together, complements tend to be the closest to the head. That is, you can say "I saw pods the size of bananas in length," but not "*I saw pods the size in length of bananas."

Putting this all together, a lot of the prepositional phrases in the first examples are complements of their heads, and so cannot be interpreted as modifying the head of the phrase in the main clause, while the phrases in the second set of examples are adjuncts, and so can easily modify the head of the phrase in the main clause.

  • 1
    +1 If there were a test for the "complement/adjunct" distinction that didn't depend on measuring the displacement of "core meaning", I'd like this answer even better.
    – jlawler
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:41
  • I fully agree with your assessment! I would find the answer even better, if you would directly refer to the question in the first paragraph, like: the terms you're looking for are complement vs. adjunct on the one hand, and constituency on the other one.
    – aslakr
    Dec 13, 2019 at 10:12
  • There are plenty of "complement/adjunct tests" that give much more solid answers. I was just going for explaining what they were and how they were different. I also edited the post to introduce the concepts a bit sooner. Dec 13, 2019 at 15:46
  • The problem I have as an ESL teacher is that all of this is blindingly beyond what most learners will tolerate in order to acquire English. I don't fully understand it myself, though I am trying to get my head around these difficult concepts and all their inherent relations to other concepts. I have a hard time seeing the usefulness of constituency when the tests for them seem to produce numerous and different sets of constituents. Adjunct and complement are more useful but still rather complex for most learners. Dec 16, 2019 at 14:31
  • That said the difference in the way the sentence complelement phrases produce their meaning is distinct and helpful for students to see, and pretty easy for them to understand. Unfortunatey, the term phrase is rather opaque and what constitutes a phrase is a matter of the terms of analysis used. Which is why I only talk about sentence phrases (S|V|C) and word phrases (np, vp, pp, avp, ajp) with my students. I have developed a system to analyse sentences and I've tried to stay in bounds, linguistically speaking, but I fear it may only earn me scorn. Dec 16, 2019 at 14:54

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