Basic word structure in English shows that a noun either be followed by a verb (when the noun is the subject) or a prepositional phrase or a time (when the noun is an object). However, nouns can be joined by additional information as part of a single grammatical unit. As we have seen with compound nouns, nouns can be formed with more than one word that describes different aspects of the noun. They can also be followed by complements which add additional information or complete the meaning of a noun, while remaining part of the subject or object’s grammatical unit.
Noun complements are normally used with abstract nouns (nouns which represent an idea rather than a thing). The complement, or additional information, explains what that idea relates to. For example:
- I like the thought of kittens sneezing.
In this case, thought is an abstract noun complemented by the phrase of kittens sneezing. Combined, the noun and complement make one complete, grammatical idea; a single thought (of kittens sneezing).
Often, as is the case above, a sentence will not make sense if an abstract noun does not have a complement. This is similar to verbs which require an object; unless we know what the noun relates to, it seems strange on its own. Examples include nouns such as idea, thought, reason, criticism, belief and need.
Noun complements can come in the form of prepositional phrases, full clauses or infinitives.
- The Mayor’s criticism of his rival was unfounded. (prepositional phrase)
- She did not like the idea that they were going to have to run home in the rain. (full clause)
- The dog did not feel the need to bark. (infinitive)
Different nouns can be followed by different complements, some more flexibly than others. For example:
- There is no reason to cry.
- What was the reason for the train delay?
- I gave two reasons why I hated him.
However, different nouns can require different complements, so they must be learned individually.
Word order and noun complements
Noun complements always follow the noun they add information to. As such, they fit into a sentence as part of the noun’s grammatical unit, even if the complement is a full clause.
- Barry explained his idea that the water filter was being tampered with to his boss.
- His idea that the water filter was being tampered with angered Barry’s boss.
- Barry’s boss listened tiredly to his idea that the water filter was being tampered with.
You may sometimes see a noun split from its complement by parenthetical information (such as an independent clause).
- Barry explained his idea, which he had been thinking about for months, that the water filter was being tampered with.
This can be difficult to do correctly and clearly, as it divides the noun from crucial information, and it is clumsy if the noun complement is followed by additional information (the example above would sound confusing if we kept the final information to his boss). So try to keep nouns and their complements together!