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The English term complementizer or the Germanized form complementer (category symbol " C ") is used in linguistics , especially in generative grammar , to describe a component of the sentence structure that is marked by subordinate conjunctions , among other things . That is, there are units that are connected to a core sentence of subject and predicate and these z. B. can expand to an introduced subordinate clause . The complementer determines the resulting sentence type (e.g. statement or question sentence, which do not differ in terms of the components subject and predicate).

The class of the complementer initially comprises the subordinate conjunctions (subjunctions) such as B. that , whether or because . The conjunction whether proves complementers because it characterizes the subordinate clause, which she introduces as (embedded) interrogative sentence, however, highlighted that an (embedded) declarative sentence. The term complementer, however, is broader, because it also includes unspoken (phonetically empty) elements that are only present in the form of features in the abstract representation of the sentence structure. In this more abstract form, not only subordinate clauses but also main clauses can contain such an element. For example, the position that is traditionally referred to as the “left bracket” in the field model of the German sentence is also identified as the complementer in many theories, regardless of what the position is occupied (in the verb second sentence it then contains, for example, the finite Verb). Thus, the term complementer primarily refers to a position in the abstract sentence structure, and only secondarily to certain words that are inserted in this position.

As far as conjunctions are concerned, according to the origin of the term, this article mainly presents aspects that result from the model of generative grammar, for a more general overview see the article Conjunction (part of speech) .

Origin of the designation

The term complementizer was introduced by Rosenbaum (1967). They originally referred to the fact that the role of a subordinate clauses required by the verb complement (Engl. Complement ) may have and are hereby introduced by a conjunction, z. B. in cases like:

Ich weiß, dass er ein Auto hat.
Ich weiß nicht, ob er ein Auto hat.

However, the term then established itself as such for the clause-introducing position, so all other types of subordinate clauses can also have complementers, such as an adverbial clause with though .


Question words and relative pronouns are not complementers (at least according to the prevailing doctrinal opinion), since these are representatives of entire constituents. This can be seen in cases where question or relative clauses are introduced by a whole group of words (in extreme cases up to the so-called pied piper construction in example e.):

a.  Ich weiß nicht mehr, wer angerufen hat.
b.  Ich weiß nicht mehr, mit wem ich telefoniert habe.
c.  Der Mann, der angerufen hatte...
d.  Der Mann, mit dem ich zu telefonieren glaubte...
e.  Leute, mit denen zu telefonieren  er sich eingebildet hatte...

Complementers, on the other hand, can never be expanded into larger syntactic groups; in particular, they themselves do not function as additions to other categories (as in the examples above, whom and whom appear as a complement to a preposition).

There are two variants of relative clauses in English, namely relative clauses with “wh” words ( who etc.) and those with that . Here that is apparently a complementer, but who is a relative pronoun. A similar distinction exists for yes / no questions; There are arguments here that the English if in question sentences is a conjunction, but the equivalent whether is a phrase that corresponds to other wh words.

Complementer in the structure of the sentence

Phrase structure

Complementer form with the other subsequent set along a constituent , which in turn z. B. can act as a syntactic complement to a verb:

Ich weiß nicht,   [  ob  [ er angerufen hat ]  ] 
Ich weiß   es   nicht
Conjunction ob in the position of the complementer C °

According to an analysis, which was largely represented by Noam Chomsky in 1986, complementers fit into the system of the X-bar theory in that it is category C heads who build up their own phrase (CP). The further sentence is therefore its complement . (This is shown in the diagrams for German as a verb phrase , for reasons see e.g. Haider 2006).

If you as "the German such clauses if -Satz", " that -Satz" means etc., comes in this speech also expressed that the conjunctions ob / that are heads that characterize the type of the entire set. Question and relative pronouns, on the other hand, are phrases in X-bar theory that occupy the specifier of CP (see next section).

In the older literature (e.g. Chomsky's theory of rule and attachment from 1981) one instead assumed an undifferentiated position in front of the core sentence, which could accommodate different types of material and did not behave as a head, this was usually abbreviated as COMP. Instead of the scheme CP = C ° + VP (or CP = C ° + IP ), a scheme S '= COMP + S is encountered in these older works.

Empty complementers

Complex phrase (PP) as a specifier of CP, with an empty header C °

If the difference between heads and phrases is applied consistently, it follows from the X-bar theory that two different positions are present at the level of the complementer: The complementer as a position for an elementary unit (a head) is preceded by a position, that takes up a phrase, the specifier. Complex sentence-introducing structures can only appear in this position. The tree diagrams illustrate this difference for the examples (I don't know) whether he called and (I don't know) at what time he called . In the second sentence, the position of the complementer C is consequently empty. Since the whole sentence is a question mark, it must be assumed that the head always bears the question mark, even if it is phonetically empty.

The fact that in such cases without conjunction the position of the complementer actually exists separately can be seen from data from German dialects in which both a relative or question pronoun and a complementer appear one after the other, e.g. B. in the following example of Bavarian:

[A Meichmaschin] is a komplizierta Apparat mit (…)
vier Saugnäpf, de wo an de Zitzn vo da Kua oneghengt wern.
(vier Saugnäpfen, die wo an die Zitzen von der Kuh angehängt werden.)

Here de acts as a relative pronoun (and thus as a phrase, i.e. a specifier) ​​and the following where is a relative clause complementer that does not exist in standard German (it is not the identical question pronoun wo , because in the Bavarian example it is in no way corresponds to an adverbial of the location). This leads to the conclusion that standard German should still have an empty position after the relative pronoun, as already shown in the tree diagrams:

… vier Saugnäpfe, die  – an die Zitzen der Kuh angehängt werden.

Complementer as a position in the sentence

In models of generative grammar, the position of the complementer can also be occupied with other material by means of a movement transformation if it was initially generated without occupation. The verb second clause and the verb clause are described in German as moving the verb into position C. For example, in German with conditional clauses, you have the choice whether you want to use the conjunction when or instead pull the verb forward in its position:

Wenn die Stelle nicht mit einer Frau besetzt werden kann, darf sie auch einem Mann angeboten werden
Kann die Stelle nicht mit einer Frau besetzt werden  – , darf sie auch einem Mann angeboten werden
Second verb clause derived from verb movement after C ° (with the middle field as VP, according to Haider (2006))

Accordingly, it is assumed that the same connection between the verb prefix and the C position also exists in the German main clause, i.e. This means that this is also to be understood as an occupation of the C position by the finite verb, as in the tree diagram opposite.

Connections between complementer and inflection

In traditional German grammar, conjunctions are classified as inflexible (unchangeable) words. However, there are many constructions in southern German dialects where they develop forms that show the same characteristics as the finite verb of the sentence, for example in the Bavarian example:

Wannst    du des ned  woaßt,       wer sonst? du es nicht weißt(, …

The same phenomenon can also be found independently of this in other Germanic languages, e.g. B. in Frisian :

dat-st     do  jûn         komst  du  heute-abend kommst

That there is a connection between finiteness and the complementer can also be seen in another respect: conjunctions require i. d. Usually either finite verbs in their complements or infinitives. So z. B. the conjunction that only appear with finite clauses , while around is a conjunction that appears with infinitives: This can be explained by the fact that the complementer rules the following sentence as his complement :

dass er arbeitet  /  *NICHT: * dass (zu) arbeiten
um zu arbeiten  /  *NICHT: * um er arbeitet


  1. ^ PS Rosenbaum: The grammar of English predicate complement constructions . MIT Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1967.
  2. Possibly but not in all cases, cf. Bernard Comrie: Relative Clauses. Structure and typology on the periphery of standard English. In: Peter Collins, David Lee (eds.): The clause in English. In: honor of Rodney Huddleston. John Benjamin, Amsterdam, pp. 81-91.
  3. L. Haegeman, J. Gueron: English Grammar: A Generative Perspective. Blackwells, Oxford 1999.
  4. ^ Noam Chomsky: Barriers. MIT Press, Cambridge (MA) 1986.
  5. Hubert Haider: Midfield phenomena. In: M. Everaert, H. van Riemsdijk (eds.): The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. Blackwell, Oxford 2006, Vol. 3., pp. 204-274.
  6. From: bar: Meichmaschin
  7. For the analysis of the relative clause shown in standard German and Bavarian, see overall: Wolfgang Sternefeld: Syntax. A morphologically motivated generative description of German. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2006, p. 363ff. (Section 7.1 C and SpecC ).
  8. Example from: Eric Fuß: Multiple Agreement and Inflection in the C-Domain. In: Linguistic Reports 213. 2008, pp. 77-106, where it is quoted from a work by Zwart (1993). "Frisian" here obviously means West Frisian .
  9. Wolfgang Sternefeld: Syntax. A morphologically motivated generative description of German. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2006, chap. 5, isb. P. 195ff .; there also arguments that “um” is not a preposition.