Subject Complement (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Subject Complement

A subject complement is a word or phrase that follows a linking verb and identifies or describes the subject.

(Note: A linking verb is a verb used to link a subject to a new identity or description. Common examples are "to be," "to become," "to appear," "to feel," "to look," "to smell," and "to taste.")
subject complement
A subject complement is either an adjective, a noun, or a pronoun.

Easy Examples of Subject Complements

In the examples below, the linking verbs are in bold and the subject complements are shaded:
  • Ben is a policeman.
  • (The linking verb is "is" (i.e., the verb "to be"). The subject complement identifies the subject "Ben." It is a noun.)
  • He will be fine.
  • (The linking verb is "will be" (i.e., the verb "to be"). The subject complement describes the subject "He." It is an adjective.)
  • I am he.
  • (The linking verb is "am" (i.e., the verb "to be"). The subject complement identifies the subject "I." It is a pronoun.)
  • That pie looks burnt to a cinder.
  • (The linking verb is "looks." The subject complement describes the subject "That pie." It is an adjective. Don't forget adjectives (just like nouns) also come in the form of phrases.)
Read more about adjective phrases. Read more about noun phrases.

More Examples of Subject Complements

Here are some more examples of subject complements:
  • Ella was a ghost. She appeared at 12 and looked stunning.
  • Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work . (Thomas A Edison, 1847-1931)
  • (Remember that adjectives and nouns can come in the forms of adjective phrases and noun phrases too.)
  • If you put butter and salt on popcorn, it tastes like salty butter. (Terry Pratchett)
  • As for me, except for an occasional heart attack, I feel as young as I ever did. (Robert Benchley, 1889-1945)

Types of Subject Complement

Subject complements that are headed by nouns or pronouns are called predicate nominatives. For example:
  • I am a ghost.
  • (In this example, "ghost" is a noun. It heads the noun phrase "a ghost." Therefore, "a ghost" is a predicate nominative.)
Subject complements that are headed by adjectives are called predicate adjectives. For example:
  • I am extremely happy.
  • (In this example, "happy" is an adjective. It heads the adjective phrase "extremely happy." Therefore, "extremely happy" is a predicate adjective.)
Read more about predicates. Subject complements do not cause many writing mistakes for native English speakers. In other words, we're good at subject complements. However, if you're learning a language (like Russian) that puts its complements in a different case (the instrumental case in the case of Russian), then you might want to pay a bit more attention to spotting complements.

Here are two issues related to subject complements.

(Issue 1) Don't use an adverb as a subject complement.

A subject complement is an adjective, noun, or pronoun. It's never an adverb.
  • This soup tastes badly.wrong cross
  • ("Tastes" is a linking verb. "Badly" is an adverb, which can't be used as a subject complement.)
  • This soup tastes bad. correct tick
  • ("Bad" is an adjective.)
It is ironic that this mistake is most commonly made by people who consciously think about whether they should be using adjectives or adverbs. Knowing that adverbs modify verbs (like "tastes"), they opt for an adverb. However, "tastes" is a linking verb, which means we need a word to modify the subject. And, that's why we need an adjective.
  • Your hair smells wonderfully. wrong cross
  • ("Smells" is a linking verb. "Wonderfully" is an adverb, which can't be used as a subject complement.)
  • Your hair smells wonderful. correct tick
  • ("Wonderful" is an adjective.)

(Issue 2) You can say "It is I" or "It is me."

Those who insist on writing "It is I" or "It was he" have tradition on their side because subject complements were traditionally written in the subjective case (e.g., "I," "she," and "he") not in the objective case (e.g, "me," "her" and "him"). However, those who'd rather write "It is me" or "It was him" have common usage on their side.

So, if you think "It was I" doesn't sound pretentious, use that construction. If you think it does, don't. Everyone's a winner.

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See Also

What is an adjective complement? What are complements? What are object complements? What are linking verbs? What is the subjective case? Glossary of grammatical terms