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For the terminology used in linguistic papers, it is quite confusing. It seems that [complement] and [adjunct] are a pair of concepts that are often distinguished from each other. However, sometimes, the other two terminologies, [modifier] and [argument] make the situation more complex. Does complement mean argument and adjunct mean modifier? Can I understand it in this way?

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  • Yes. more or less. 'Adjunct' means modifier in clause structure i.e. in the VP (as opposed to in phrase structure), whereas complements are items that must be licensed by the head. Prototypically, arguments correspond to complements, while adjuncts are concerned with the circumstances. In, for example, "He always reads the paper before breakfast", "he" and "paper" are arguments of "read" (thus complements, syntactically), but "always" and "before breakfast" are concerned with circumstances of the situation (frequency and temporal) -- they are adjuncts.
    – BillJ
    Sep 3 at 6:20
  • But this is now a mixture of generative and traditional parlance. Your notion of complement above is generativist, your notion of adjunct is traditionalist. In GG "adjunct" means an item that does not change the projection level when it is added. Head adjuncts aren't modifiers, for example, and adjoined intermediate traces in the Barriers framework were not modifiers etc.
    – Alazon
    Sep 3 at 8:44
  • Notably, subjects are also "complements" in some schools, like dependency grammar. But never in the generative terminology
    – Alazon
    Sep 3 at 8:48
  • I take adjuncts to be either modifiers in clause structure (as opposed to phrase structure), or supplements attached to a clause. H&P claim that subjects are complements since they must be licensed by the verb. Seems reasonable.
    – BillJ
    Sep 5 at 17:37

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Unfortunately, many technical terms in linguistics are ambiguous, because they are used differently in different traditions. "Complement" and "adjunct" are a case in point. It is probably always the case that these two are seen as opposites, but the definition can vary. I would assume that "argument" and "modifier" are less ambiguous, but who knows. With argument and modifier, you rather stress the semantic function. "Complement" and "adjunct" are used in generative grammar as purely syntactic notions, namely positions in the syntactic structure. You may then wonder whether there are unifiorm ways of interpreting them, that's a tough question, there is probably a correlation in that complements often have the function of an argument and adjuncts (even more often) as a modifier. But modifiers can occur as "specifiers" or even as structural complements at least in some theories.

But that's the interpretation of the terms in generative syntax. As far as I can see, there is also a more traditional understanding of these terms that identifies them more or less with the semantic function or argument or modifier.

I once researched precisely this question when I wrote the articles "Komplement (Syntax)" and "Adjunkt (Syntax)" for the German wikipedia. The result which you find there is that complement and adjunct are presented as ambiguous terms, with the variants traced back to different sources. I see that, in the English wikipedia, the article "adjunct" has a different approach and seems to emphasise the correlation between the grammatical and the semantic side of the notion.

The terminology of linguistics is a mess, everyone admits that...

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    The terms 'Complement' and 'Adjunct' are widely used in descriptive grammar, where adjunct is defined as a modifier in clause structure (or a supplement attached to a clause), while a complement is a kind of dependent that must be licensed by the head.
    – BillJ
    Sep 2 at 18:34
  • I guess "descriptive" and "traditional" amount to roughly the same thing?
    – Alazon
    Sep 2 at 21:08
  • Yes, more or less. Please see my comment to the OP.
    – BillJ
    Sep 3 at 6:21

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