Syntax is the heart of grammar

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Talk to most people about grammar and you’re likely to hear a lot about little issues that are, essentially, language trivia -- matters like when to use “whom,” how to use “between” and whether you can use “like” to mean “such as” (the dictionary allows it).

Yes, you can call that grammar. But it’s more precise to call it usage, which is just part of the big picture of grammar. Far more interesting to me is syntax. Sentence mechanics. The way words work together to form sentences is the very heart of grammar. Which is why I actually enjoy knowing about object complements.

Like subjects, objects, verbs and modifiers, object complements can be an integral part of a sentence. But unlike these more famous sentence elements, object complements labor in obscurity, underappreciated for the good work they do.

Look at this sentence: The news made Charles angry. What’s the subject? It’s the news. What’s the verb? It’s “made.” The object, of course, is Charles. He’s the one being made. So what’s that “angry” doing in there? It’s modifying the object. That’s what object complements do.

In grammar, the word “complement” plays a pretty important role. As in the vernacular, it means something that completes or goes with something else, the way a wine is said to complement a meal. But in grammar, it’s more specific. In the case of object complements, the word “complement” refers to something that completes the object, making the sentence a whole thought.

Take “angry” out of our Charles example and you’ll see what I mean: “The news made Charles.” That’s not what happened. Instead, the news made Charles something. Angry. The adjective is modifying the object in a way that completes the thought of the sentence, making it an object complement.

Adjectives aren’t the only things that can complement an object. Nouns can too. Consider this sentence: The board of directors made Beverly treasurer.

It’s the same structure as our last example, with the verb “made” followed by its object, in this case Beverly. But the word modifying the object isn’t an adjective like “angry.” It’s a noun: treasurer.

Sometimes, nouns do work like adjectives: shoe store, road trip, police dog and paint job all have nouns modifying other nouns. These are called attributive nouns, by the way, because they attribute qualities to the other word.

But that’s not what’s happening in “The board made Beverly treasurer.” There’s a semantic element here that we don’t see in “shoe store.” You could almost say this sentence contains an implied “into,” as in, “They made Beverly into their treasurer.” Or maybe that’s a stretch. The point is that our object complement is not just functioning adjectivally, it’s doing something more: completing the thought of the sentence.

Object complements are sometimes called object predicates, object predicatives, object attributes, objective predicatives and predicative complements. It’s fine to let all those terms go in one ear and out the other as long as you remember that this concept has a whole lot of names you could come across.

I like the name “object complement” because it helps me understand its role. It completes the idea of the object. You can call it what you like. Or you can forget it altogether. But if there’s one lesson to remember, it’s that every word in a sentence is doing a specific job. It’s a cog in a machine. Not all words are necessary, just as not all machines are efficient. But by knowing a little about syntax, you can understand how the pieces fit together.

(June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com)

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