The structural backbone of a sentence can consist of a just a subject and finite verb:
Have the piranhas dined yet?
Fang has finally uncoiled.
But very often the action of the finite verb “continues on” and is “completed” by a word or phrase. In the following examples, you’ll feel the “completing” distinctly if you say the subject and finite verb aloud, pause for a second, and then say the completer. I’ll be coloring subjects blue, finite verbs red and completers green and will be marking the main words of the functions in bold:
Capt. Quack directs all the big migrations.
You send silly postcards.
Don’t shake your slimy tentacles at me!
Finally, the princess married a salamander.
Testing for Completers
As we’ve seen, the subject of a finite verb is any phrase that answers who or what? when the question is placed before the finite verb. Correspondingly, the completer is any word or phrase that answers who(m) or what? when the question is asked just after the finite verb: it’s the same question but asked on the opposite side of the verb. Here are some more sentences containing completers:
Sister Susie has sewn some pretty sensational shirts. [Test for subject: who or what has sewn? Answer: Sister Susie. Test for completer: Sister Susie has sewn who(m) or what? Answer: …some pretty sensational shirts]
Sister Susie has sewn some pretty sensational shirts.
Did she include the buttons? [Test for subject: who or what did include? Answer: she. Test for completer: did include who(m) or what? Answer: …the buttons]
Did she include the buttons?
All geese adore Ms. Beebs. [Test for subject: who or what adore Ms. Beebs? Answer: All geese… Test for completer: All geese adore who(m) or what? Answer …Ms. Beebs]
All geese adore Ms. Beebs.
A relaxed pig makes a wonderful companion. [Test for subject: who or what makes a wonderful companion? Answer: a relaxed pig… Test for completer: A relaxed pig makes who(m) or what? Answer: …a wonderful companion]
A relaxed pig makes a wonderful companion.
Who and Whom
Who and whom are two forms of the same word, a pronoun that refers to people, as opposed to things. Who is the form for subjects; whom is the form for completers. But whom now strikes most people as too formal for speaking, and who has become common in most situations, even in fairly formal writing. So it won’t make a difference if you prefer to ask who or what? when testing for completers.
Positions of Completers
We’ve seen that subjects usually precede their finite verbs, and completers usually follow.. But the positions can be reversed: subjects can follow and completers can precede the finite verb, for the sake of emphasis or in certain questions:
“Nuts,” said the squirrel. [emphasis on the squirrel’s remark]
Difficult jobs we do right away; impossible ones we save for the weekend crew. [emphasis on the different kinds of jobs]
Who(m) did you see?
[Who(m) is the “question word”; it refers to the unknown person.]
But once again, even though the positions of subjects and completers can vary, the side of the finite verb on which the test question is asked remains always the same: just before the finite verb for subjects and just after the verb for completers.
Most verbs refer to “actions”: something that somebody or something does or performs. Action verbs express activities, movements, changes, and the like. When an action verb has a completer, the verb tells what its subject does to the completer. We can see this in the following examples:
Ducks love webbed feet.
Ophelia trained the new fleas.
Absentmindedly, we shampooed the cookies and ate the rug.
The ducks do something to their feet: they love them. Ophelia did something to the fleas: she trained them. We did something to the cookies and something else to the rug.
Linking verbs work somewhat differently. As their name indicates, they link or join—establish a connection between—their subjects and completers. Linking verbs are something like equals signs: they express an identity or association between subject and completer or name a condition in the completer that belongs to the subject. The most common linking verb is be:
Sidonia is our new director of migration. [Sidonia = director of migration]
Uncle Charley and Aunt Bessie have been lifelong duck watchers. [Uncle Charley and Aunt Bessie = lifelong duck watchers]
He was mediocre; she was wonderful.[He = mediocre; she = wonderful]
How scary was the movie?
The following sentences contain some different linking verbs. As with the verb be, these establish an association between subject and completer:
They seem pretty wacko.
Your kisses feel scratchy.
And your pucker looks lopsided.
He is becoming a really good flea trainer.
You would make a great duck inspector.
Linking Verbs and Stress
Ordinarily, the main verb of an action-verb phrase receives a relatively strong stress in speaking, as in:
We burn for your return.
I could have quacked all night.
You shouldn’t have insulted that dragon.
But linking verbs are seldom stressed in speaking. Instead the stress tends to fall on their completers:
We have been pooped for a month.
You are the pea under my mattress.
Miss Hiss looks pensive.
That flea has been the cause of all my heartache.
They both feel frivolous.
Only when the “linkage” itself is strongly emphasized does the linking verb receive a noticeable stress:
So you were nice after all.
I am being omnivorous!
In fact, as we know in speaking and in informal writing be is often so unstressed that gets combined with its subject, making a contraction:
He’s hot, she’s cold, you’re lukewarm, and we’re confused.
You’re nuts! Fang’s a champ!
When we don’t want to link a subject and completer, but just say that something “is,” or “exists,” we use a special construction. We put There at the beginning of the sentence, as a kind of “dummy” or “anticipated” subject and then put the actual subject after the verb, in the usual completer position. For example:
There’s a thumb in my soup.
You monster, five seconds ago, there were seven cookies on that plate.
There have been several signs of a loose cobra.
In these examples, there doesn’t refer to a direction (as when we say, “Look over there”). Instead, it’s a structural marker; it satisfies the need for the familiar rhythm of having a subject word at the beginning of a sentence.
We’ve seen that subjects and finite verbs can be coordinated—added together. The same goes for completers. If, in the following sentence, you ask elected who(m)?, you get two coordinate completers
They elected Dr. Itch and Prof. Tickle.
In the next example, the finite verb has four completers:
Our circus already has ducks, cobras, and fleas but no piranhas.
The next example contains coordinate finite verbs. The second verb, phoned, takes coordinate completers:
She texted Miss Hiss and phoned Jumbo and Fang.
Two completers of the same finite verb are not necessarily coordinate—there are different kinds of completers. In the following examples, you have to ask a “double” test-question, in which you include the first answer in the second question:
She gave the monster a dirty look. [She gave who(m)? Answer: the monster. She gave the monster what? Answer: a dirty look.]
They named Maestro Scratch “Flea-Manager of the Year.” [They named who(m)? Answer: Maestro Scratch. They named Maestro Scratch what? Answer: “Flea-Manager of the Year.”]
Please give the ducks’ request, your careful consideration. [Give who(m) or what? Answer: the ducks’ request. Give the ducks’ request what? Answer: your careful consideration.]
Give me a chance, and I‘ll make you rich.[Give who(m)? Answer: me. Give me what? Answer: a chance. And I’ll make who(m)?? Answer: you. I’ll make you what? Answer: rich.]
Notice that we can’t coordinate double completers. It would be nonsense to say, “We gave the monster and a dirty look” or “Give me and a chance” or “I’ll make you and rich.”
Direct and Indirect Objects
I’ve used the term double completer on this page in order to minimize the number of technical terms you need to absorb in order to understand the idea of “completing” finite verbs. But as many people know, and for the record, the first completer of a double completer is conventionally called an indirect object and the second completer is called a direct object. It’s said that the indirect object “receives” the direct object:
We paid Miss Hiss and Jumbo five dollars each. [Miss H. and Jumbo received the money.]
Give me half a chance and I’ll make you rich. [If I receive the chance, you receive the riches.]
Direct objects always immediately follow indirect objects, so even if you see the pair as just one “two-word” completer, you won’t be all that inaccurate.
(See also Direct and Indirect Objects, Subject and Object Complements, and Double Completers in the Reference section.)
Completers and Modifiers
Modifiers are the subject of the following page, but I want to briefly contrast them with completers here. Only one of the four examples below contains a completer:
He left his friends and neighbors.
He left very early.
He left in a flaming snit.
The only phrase in any of these sentences that answers the test question: left who(m) or what? comes in the second example. The phrases that follow the finite verbs in the third and fourth examples are modifiers. Completers answer only whom or what? Modifiers answer a number of other questions but never whom or what? The phrases following the finite verbs in the third and fourth examples tell “when” (very early) and “how” (in a flaming snit).
If both a completer and modifier follow the finite verb, the completer usually comes before the modifier.
I did not squirt champagne during the ceremony. [During the ceremony tells “when” I didn’t misbehave.]
Please uncoil those cobras with care. [With care tells “how” the uncoiling should be performed.]
You’re getting sillier by the day. [By the day tells the “rate” of silliness increase.]