What is subject-complement agreement?

A predicate is the completer of a sentence. The subject names the “do-er” or “be-er” of the sentence; the predicate does the rest of the work. A simple predicate consists of only a verb, verb string, or compound verb:

  • The glacier melted.
  • The glacier has been melting.
  • The glacier melted, broke apart, and slipped into the sea.

A compound predicate consists of two (or more) such predicates connected:

  • The glacier began to slip down the mountainside and eventually crushed some of the village's outlying buildings.

A complete predicate consists of the verb and all accompanying modifiers and other words that receive the action of a transitive verb or complete its meaning. The following description of predicates comes from The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers (examples our own):

With an intransitive verb, objects and complements are included in the predicate. (The glacier is melting.) With a transitive verb, objects and object complements are said to be part of the predicate. (The slow moving glacier wiped out an entire forest. It gave the villagers a lot of problems.) With a linking verb, the subject is connected to a subject complement. (The mayor doesn't feel good.)

A predicate adjective follows a linking verb and tells us something about the subject:

  • Ramonita is beautiful.
  • His behavior has been outrageous.
  • That garbage on the street smells bad.

A predicate nominative follows a linking verb and tells us what the subject is:

  • Dr. Couchworthy is acting president of the university.
  • She used to be the tallest girl on the team.
What Is Subject-Complement Agreement?Click on “Mr. Morton” to read and hear Lynn Ahren's “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” and learn all about subjects and simple predicates (from Scholastic Rock). Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.

A direct object is the receiver of action within a sentence, as in “He hit the ball.” Be careful to distinguish between a direct object and an object complement:

  • They named their daughter Natasha.

In that sentence, “daughter” is the direct object and “Natasha” is the object complement, which renames or describes the direct object.

The indirect object identifies to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed. The direct object and indirect object are different people or places or things. The direct objects in the sentences below are in boldface; the indirect objects are in italics.

  • The instructor gave his students A's.
  • Grandfather left Rosalita and Raoul all his money.
  • Jo-Bob sold me her boat.

Incidentally, the word me (and similar object-form pronouns such as him, us, them) is not always an indirect object; it will also serve, sometimes, as a direct object.

  • Bless me/her/us!
  • Call me/him/them if you have questions.

In English, nouns and their accompanying modifiers (articles and adjectives) do not change form when they are used as objects or indirect objects, as they do in many other languages.

“The radio is on the desk” and “I borrowed the radio” contain exactly the same word form used for quite different functions. This is not true of pronouns, however, which use different forms for different functions. (He [subject] loves his grandmother.

His grandmother loves him [object].) (See, also, pronoun cases.)

Since this page is about the completers of thoughts, it is appropriate to include a brief description of complements.

A complement (notice the spelling of the word) is any word or phrase that completes the sense of a subject, an object, or a verb.

As you will see, the terminology describing predicates and complements can overlap and be a bit confusing. Students are probably wise to learn one set of terms, not both.

  • A subject complement follows a linking verb; it is normally an adjective or a noun that renames or defines in some way the subject.
    • A glacier is a huge body of ice.
    • Glaciers are beautiful and potentially dangerous at the same time.
    • This glacier is not yet fully formed. (verb form acting as an adjective, a participle)

    Adjective complements are also called predicate adjectives; noun complements are also called predicate nouns or predicate nominatives. See predicates, above.

  • An object complement follows and modifies or refers to a direct object. It can be a noun or adjective or any word acting as a noun or adjective.
    • The convention named Dogbreath Vice President to keep him happy. (The noun “Vice President” complements the direct object “Dogbreath”; the adjective “happy” complements the object “him.”)
    • The clown got the children too excited. (The participle “excited” complements the object “children.”)
  • A verb complement is a direct or indirect object of a verb. (See above.)
    • Granny left Raoul all her money. (Both “money” [the direct object] and “Raoul” [the indirect object] are said to be the verb complements of this sentence.)

The Right Way To Use Subject-Complement Agreement

In a world where using singular “they” is becoming more commonplace, subject-complement agreement can sometimes get quite confusing.

It is important to remember that although singular “they” is quite popular in the spoken word, there are still writing styles that don’t recognize it as grammatically correct.

This is why it is still important to be sure that your complement, or that part of the sentence that completes the sentence’s meaning, matches your subject. This means proofreading your work carefully for agreement errors.

How To Use Subject-Complement Agreement

Follow these steps to ensure that your subject-complement agreement is grammatically correct:

1. Identify Subject-Complement Errors

One of the first steps in ensuring subject-complement agreement is to identify obvious errors. Basic grammar rules tell us that if the subject is singular, the complement should also be singular. If the subject is plural, the complement should be plural.

  • INCORRECT: The dog wagged their tail.
  • CORRECT SINGULAR: The dog wagged its tail.
  • CORRECT PLURAL: The dogs wagged their tails.
  • In certain writing styles, such as AP style, even if the gender of the subject is not identified, a singular pronoun is still required.
  • INCORRECT: The child showed their painting to their parents.
  • CORRECT SINGULAR: The child showed his painting to his parents.
  • CORRECT SINGULAR: The child showed her painting to her parents.
  • CORRECT PLURAL: The children showed their paintings to their parents.
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When writing about businesses, subject-complement agreement can get tricky. If you refer to the subject as singular, then the complement should be singular. Use the plural complement if you are talking about businesses or other subjects in the plural.

  1. INCORRECT: Although the company provides construction services, they don’t offer painting.
  2. CORRECT SINGULAR: Although the company provides construction services, it doesn’t offer painting.
  3. CORRECT PLURAL: Although the companies provide construction services, they don’t offer painting.

2. Use Subject-Complement Agreement With Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are nouns that encompass a group of people but look singular. This is the case of words such as family, group, assembly and so forth. If the collective noun is shared by a plural subject, you still use the singular complement.

CORRECT SINGULAR: She told her crew to wait.

CORRECT PLURAL: They told their crew to wait.

3. Understand Countable vs. Abstract Complements With Plural Subjects

What Are Subject Complements in English Grammar?

  • The light in the chapel was warm and soft.
  • Mrs. Rigney was my fourth-grade teacher.
  • My fourth-grade teacher was exceptionally kind.
  • “Ruth and Thelma are my best friends, and their roomies are Tammy Hinsen and Rebecca Bogner.” (Dean Koontz, Lightning. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1988)
  • “I knelt down and pulled on the edge of the stone with him, and it started to move with the sucking sound of thick mud. It smelled awful, and we looked at each other with sour faces.” (Patrick Carman, The Land of Elyon: Into the Mist. Scholastic Press, 2007)
  • “The Johnson children and Harbor Branch received $169 million. But if they were the true winners, no one was the loser.” (Barbara Goldsmith, Johnson V. Johnson. Knopf, 1987)
  • “The very air was alive with the uncanny cries of phantoms that flew through the secret places of this region. These mountains were unfriendly at the best of times.” (David Bilsborough, The Wanderer's Tale. Tor, 2007)

“If a verb requires a subject complement (SC) to complete the sentence, the verb is a linking verb. The subject complement ([italicized] in the examples that follow) typically identifies or characterizes the person or thing denoted by the subject:

(1) Sandra is my mother's name.(2) Your room must be the one next to mine.(3) The upstairs tenant seemed a reliable person.(4) A university is a community of scholars.(5) The receptionist seemed very tired.(6) You should be more careful.(7) The distinction became ​quite clear.(8) The corridor is too narrow.

The most common linking verb is be.

Other common linking verbs (with examples of subject complements in parentheses) include appear (the best plan), become (my neighbor), seem (obvious), feel (foolish), get (ready), look (cheerful), sound (strange).

Subject complements are typically noun phrases, as in (1)-(4) above, or adjective phrases, as in (5)-(8) above.” (Gerald C. Nelson and Sidney Greenbaum, An Introduction to English Grammar, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2009)

The Subject Complement is the obligatory constituent which follows a copular verb and which cannot be made the subject in a passive clause:

Who's there? It's me / It's I.*She became a tennis champion at a very early age.Feel free to ask questions!

The Subject Complement does not represent a new participant, as an Object does, but completes the predicate by adding information about the subject referent. For this reason, the Subject Complement differs from the Object in that it can be realized not only by a nominal group but also by an adjectival group (Adj.G), as illustrated in the previous examples.

“The objective case (me) is now in general use (It's me) except in the most formal registers, in which the subjective form (It's I) or (I am he/she) are heard, especially in AmE.

“As well as be and seem, a wide range of verbs can be used to link the subject to its Complement; these add meanings of transition (become, get, go, grow, turn) and of perception (sound, smell, look) among others…” (Angela Downing and Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)

“(16c) These are the costs the grey parties never talk about when they allow the system to go on. (w2b-013:097) . . .(16h) I call them wild flowers. . . .(s1a-036:205)

“In those cases in which the complements are noun phrases, the subject complement shows concord with the subject S, and the object complement is in concord with the direct object, as can be best seen in the examples (16c) and (16h).” (Rolf Kreyer, Introduction to English Syntax. Peter Lang, 2010)

The italicized portions of the following examples are Subject Complements. The upper case labels to the right indicate the semantic relation between the Subject Complement and the Subject:

(4a) The venue for the meeting is the Roxburghe Hotel. EQUATION(4b) The estate car is a Volvo. PROPER INCLUSION(4c) You're so young. ATTRIBUTION(4d) Would you still love me if I were old and saggy? ATTRIBUTION(4e) that telly was mine POSSESSION(4f) Sometimes we're on a collision course, LOCATION(4g) the NHS was for all of us BENEFACTEE(4h) The five pound note was for services rendered. IN EXCHANGE

The Inflection (marking for tense, aspect, mode, and agreement) in this type of construction is carried by be; therefore be is the syntactic Head of the Predicate. However, the Subject Complement is the element that expresses the main semantic content of the Predicate. In other words, the Complement is the semantic Head of the Predicate.”

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Thomas E. Payne, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2011

Subject complement

In grammar, a subject complement or predicative of the subject is a predicative expression that follows a linking verb (copula) and that complements the subject of the sentence by either (1) renaming it or (2) describing it. It completes the meaning of the subject.

[1] In the former case, a renaming noun phrase such as a noun or pronoun is called a predicative nominal. An adjective following the copula and describing the subject is called a predicative adjective. In either case the predicative complement in effect mirrors the subject.

Subject complements are used with a small class of verbs called linking verbs or copulas, of which be is the most common. Since copulas are stative verbs, subject complements are not affected by any action of the verb. Subject complements are typically not clause arguments, nor are they clause adjuncts.

A predicative complement can be either a subject complement or an object complement.

A predicate nominative does not determine the verb. When there is a difference between the number, the verb agrees with the subject.[2][3]

Examples

The subject complement is bold in the following examples:

  • The lake was a tranquil pool. – Predicative nominal as subject complement

Here, was is a linking verb (an inflected form of be) that equates the predicate nominative phrase a tranquil pool, with the head noun, pool, to the subject, the lake (with head noun lake).

  • The lake is tranquil. – Predicative adjective as subject complement

In this example tranquil is a predicative adjective linked through the verb is (another inflected form of be) to the subject the lake.[4]

An example in which the subject complement is a dependent clause is:

  • That is what my point is. – Predicative clause as subject complement

Other languages

Some languages do not use predicative adjectives with a linking verb; instead, adjectives can become stative verbs that replace the copula. For example, in Mandarin Chinese It is red is rendered as tā hóng, which translates literally as It red. However, Mandarin retains the copula when it is followed by a predicative nominal.

Disputed pronoun forms

Eighteenth-century grammarians such as Joseph Priestley justified the colloquial usage of it is me (and it is him, he is taller than him, etc.) on the grounds of good writers using it often: (sic)

When the complement was roses

Q: I was taught (cue the “harrumph, harrumph”) that a “what” or “all” clause takes a singular verb: “What I’m asking for is people who follow the rules.” But all I hear now is plural verbs in these constructions. This is obviously a sign of the approach of the Last Days. Can you comment on this thrilling topic?

A: Your question raises two common problems in subject-verb agreement, a topic that can be notoriously confusing:

(1) When a subject is singular and its complement (the word or phrase that completes the sentence) is plural, do we use a singular or a plural verb? (The short answer: singular.)

(2) Are the pronouns “all” and “what” always singular and accompanied by a singular verb? (The short answer: no.)

  • Now on to the longer answers.
  • It can be hard to choose a verb when the subject of a sentence is clearly singular and the complement, on the other side of the verb, is clearly plural.
  • For example, should we say, “The thing that annoyed me most was the grammatical errors,” or “ … were the grammatical errors”?

The answer is “was.” As we’ve written before on the blog, the verb agrees with the subject, not its complement.

Here’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “When a subject and a complement of different number are separated by the verb to be, the verb should agree with the number of the subject.”

You might rephrase the sentence as “The grammatical errors were the thing that annoyed me most.” In that version, “errors” is the subject and “the thing that …” is the complement.

But correctness is one thing and graceful English is another. Even when it’s correct, a sentence whose subject and complement are different in number—one singular and the other plural—can sound awkward.

In this case, we’d advise substituting “what” for “the thing that,” since “what,” as we’ll explain below, can be construed as either singular or plural.

So we end up with “What annoyed me most were the grammatical errors” (or “The grammatical errors were what annoyed me most”).

Which brings us to problem No. 2: clauses beginning with “what or “all.”

  1. A clause, as you know, is part of a sentence with its own subject and verb, and a clause that starts with “what” (or “all”) can present a thorny problem in subject-verb agreement.
  2. Whether the “what” in such a clause is the subject or the object, the verb may be either singular or plural.
  3. When “what” is the subject of the clause (and the same is true of “all”), it agrees in number—singular or plural—with the complement (as we said, the word or phrase that completes the sentence).

University of Glasgow

Back to list of Issues

Jamal Ardehali

It is shown that when the subject complement in a copulative clause is a noun phrase, there is not always subject-subject complement number concord.

In such cases, sometimes the verb agrees in number with the complement, rather than with the subject – in other words, the choice of the verb number is dictated by the subject complement rather than by the subject.

It is then argued that a construction having only subject complement-verb concord is derived by transformation from one in which there is only subject-verb concord and that the subject-verb concord can be considered as remaining intact in the derived construction if the conventional labelling of its constituents is revised.

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INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

When a subject complement is a noun phrase there is usually concord of number between subject and subject complement:

‘Her father is a member of Lloyd’s.’ ‘More than 40 Conservative MPs are members of Lloyd’s.’

(The Times, 19/6/93)

There are, however, cases when such a concord does not exist, i.e. the subject and the subject complement differ in number:

‘My only hope for the future is my children.’ (1)

Acknowledging the existence of such cases, the prescriptive rule of number concord in copulative clauses stipulates that ‘… the verb follows the number of the subject, whatever that of the complement may be.’ 1 Fowler then gives several examples ‘violating the rule’, namely the verb following the number of the complement when it is different from that of the subject 2.

Quirk et al., however, account for the lack of subject-subject complement concord in (1) by assuming that ‘the complement in (1) seems condensed, with perhaps an implied preposition: My only hope for the future is in my children.’ 3 On the other hand, they consider the following alternative as equally acceptable:

  • ‘My only hope for the future are my children’ (1’b)
  • and also mention the potentiality for subject-complement reversal:
  • ‘My children are my only hope for the future.’ (1’a)

The argument put forward for the lack of concord in (1) (notional singularity of ‘my children’) cannot of course be used in (1’b) and (1’a), nor can we assume that in (1’b) or (1’a) ‘my only hope for the future’ is notionally plural. There is clearly no number concord of any kind (grammatical or notional) between the subject and subject complement in the above examples and in (1’b) the verb quite clearly agrees in number with the complement.

The second example given by Quirk et al. is:

‘More nurses is the next item on the agenda.’ 4 (2b)

Basic Sentence Structure – TIP Sheets – Butte College

BASIC SENTENCE STRUCTUREParts of Sentences: Subject, Predicate, Object, Indirect Object, Complement

Every word in a sentence serves a specific purpose within the structure of that particular sentence. According to rules of grammar, sentence structure can sometimes be quite complicated. For the sake of simplicity, however, the basic parts of a sentence are discussed here.

The two most basic parts of a sentence are the subject and predicate.

SUBJECT

The subject of a sentence is the person, place, or thing that is performing the action of the sentence. The subject represents what or whom the sentence is about. The simple subject usually contains a noun or pronoun and can include modifying words, phrases, or clauses.

The man . . .

PREDICATE

The predicate expresses action or being within the sentence. The simple predicate contains the verb and can also contain modifying words, phrases, or clauses.

The man /  builds a house.

The subject and predicate make up the two basic structural parts of any complete sentence. In addition, there are other elements, contained within the subject or predicate, that add meaning or detail.

These elements include the direct object, indirect object, and subject complement. All of these elements can be expanded and further combined into simple, compound, complex, or compound/complex sentences.

(See TIP Sheet on “Sentence Type and Purpose.”) 

DIRECT OBJECT

The direct object receives the action of the sentence. The direct object is usually a noun or pronoun.

  • The man builds a house
  • The man builds it.
  • INDIRECT OBJECT

The indirect object indicates to whom or for whom the action of the sentence is being done. The indirect object is usually a noun or pronoun.

  1. The man builds his family a house. 
  2. The man builds them a house.
  3. SUBJECT COMPLEMENT

A subject complement either renames or describes the subject, and therefore is usually a noun, pronoun, or adjective. Subject complements occur when there is a linking verb within the sentence (often a linking verb is a form of the verb to be).

  • The man is a good father. (father = noun which renames the subject)
  • The man seems kind. (kind = adjective which describes the subject)
  • Note: As an example of the difference between parts of speech and parts of a sentence, a noun can function within a sentence as subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition, or subject complement.
  • For more information on the structure and formation of sentences, see the following TIP Sheets:
  • Sentence Types and PurposesSentence FragmentsIndependent and Dependent Clauses: Coordination and SubordinationPrepositions and Prepositional PhrasesOther Phrases: Verbal, Appositive, AbsoluteComma Splices and Run-on SentencesThe Eight Parts of SpeechNounsPronounsVerbsAdjectivesAdverbesConjunctions
  • Interjections

Singular subject, plural complement

In English a verb normally agrees with the subject of the sentence, not with a following complement.

  • The biggest timewaster is appointments. (NOT The biggest timewaster are appointments.) (subject – biggest timewaster; verb – is; complement – appointments)

Here the singular verb is agrees with the singular subject timewaster.

  • The biggest problem in our country is unemployed youngsters. (NOT The biggest problem in our country are unemployed youngsters.)

Here the singular verb is agrees with the singular subject serious problem.

However, sometimes the verb is made to agree with the complement. This usually happens when the subject is a long way from the verb.

  • The only watchable thing on television last weekend was the football matches. OR The only watchable thing on television last weekend were the football matches.

This may also happen when the subject is a relative what-clause.

  • What I am interested in knowing is / are his personal reactions.
  • What we need is / are a few bright youngsters.

When a singular subject is modified by a following plural expression, people sometimes use a plural verb. This is usually considered incorrect.

  • Nobody

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