Some things are better left unsaid.

This is the way I understand the sentence:
[Some [things]] = subject
[better] = predicative complement
[left [unsaid]] = predicative adjunct 1
[unsaid] = predicative adjunct 2

But I'm not sure.

  • Excellent question. Perhaps also one for EL&U if you don't get a good answer here. (although you're more likely to get a good answer here!) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 6 '15 at 16:44
  • It is indeed an excellent question. I hope you don't find my analysis too weaselly. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 6 '15 at 16:45
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    I think Stoney's answer has some interesting ideas in it, but I think yours is also a very good analysis (although I prefer 'Predicative Complement' to 'Subject Complement' - but that's just me). – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 6 '15 at 17:10
  • @Araucaria Stoney's answer hinges upon the claim that better here is not an adjective, but I think it is an adjective: not saying X doesn't make it better in itself, but it would leave it better for us. – Færd Dec 6 '15 at 18:56
  • @MJF I agree on balance, but Stoney has some good reasons for his claim too. As I say, I tend to agree with you, but who knows?! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 6 '15 at 22:15

Your analysis seems to run parallel to mine.  The phrase "better left unsaid" does seem to warrant some consideration. 

My analysis starts with the question of how the verb works.  "To be" can be the copula.  In a similar sentence that I suspect to be comparable, that seems to be a reasonable label: 

Some things are better. 

In this sentence, I take the complete subject to be "some things" and I take the argument of the verb to be the subject complement.  The label of predicate complement is comparable with this. 

We can then examine "better left unsaid" to see whether it can function the same as the single word "better". 

If "better" remains a subject complement and an adjective in the original model, then we've sufficiently explained the structure of this clause.  One interpretation that retains "better" as a subject complement is that "left unsaid" is a participial phrase that directly modifies "better". 

You labeled the phrase as a predicative adjunct.  I imagine that we both see "left unsaid" as doing the same job that an adverb can do -- directly modifying the adjective "better".  It doesn't fill a licensed slot.  If that's what you mean by predicative adjunct, then I'll agree with that assessment. 

I use "adjunct" to label things that modify verbs because the contrast between adjunct and argument is a useful distinction regarding a verb's dependents.  That distinction is not relevant to the adjective "better".  Adjectives simply don't take arguments.  They take adverbial modifiers. 

The verb "left" can be used in both transitive and intransitive constructions.  It doesn't necessarily require any argument.  If we can consider "unsaid" as an adjunct modifier of the participle "left", then our analysis is finished. 

Some things are better left behind. 

In this sentence, "behind" is not a participle.  It's not a noun.  It's not the kind of thing that can act as a verb's object.  We can consider it an intransitive preposition or a strange little adverb.  Either way, it's not an argument of the verb "left". It's just an adjunct. 

Since we can consider the "behind" of "left behind" to be an adjunct, we can consider the "unsaid" of "left unsaid" in the same way.  Our analysis is finished. 

"Unsaid" is a participle that directly modifies "left" in the same way that an adverb or a preposition might, as an adjunct.  "Left unsaid" is a participial phrase which modifies "better".  "Better left unsaid" is an adjective phrase which serves as the complement of the subject "some things" as licensed by the copula "are". 

This analysis depends on regarding "are" as the copula -- or as a linking verb, if you prefer that label.  If so, then "better left unsaid" should be able to modify "things" directly as well as through the governance of some copular verb.  Such an example would demonstrate that "better left unsaid" functions as an adjective phrase.

He wanted to talk about things better left unsaid.

That seems to be the case.  "Things better left unsaid" is a grammatically sound and coherent noun phrase, the relationships within it are not directly governed by any external verb, and it is a suitable object for the preposition "about".

  • Precise, accurate, beautiful. – Færd Dec 7 '15 at 22:05

This is a complicated idiom which is at bottom really not amenable to formal syntactic analysis.

Better here is not an adjective but an adverb, as in You had better [do X] or We had better [not do X], so it's not a complement but a clausal adjunct: it recommends a course of action.

Left unsaid is a participle clause "modifying" its inferred subject, Some things. In this clause unsaid is a participle employed as a complement of the verb leave; ordinarily it would be an object complement ("He left it dead", "We leave this unsaid"), but since its head clause is passive it is a subject complement. You may resolve this tension by thinking of it as a Patient complement.

The really gnarly piece is are. This is neither a copula (it doesn't mediate a predication of left unsaid to Some things) nor an auxiliary (it doesn't marry with left to govern a passive assertion). It should rather be understood as a "dummy" verb employed to provide a formal clause to which the adjunct better can be formally attached. In effect, it's the same BE that we use in cleft sentences with dummy it: "It is better to leave some things unsaid."

  • Hmmm, I like your analysis, but I'm not totally convinced. a) Is better really an adverb here? b) Is this really a case of a frozen idiom that can't be analysed in smaller parts? It's seems very similar to "They are best eaten cold", or "They are more contagious left untreated", wouldn't you say? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 6 '15 at 16:48
  • Although, I concede it's not necessarily the same kind of construction. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 6 '15 at 16:51
  • @Araucaria mmm ... I knew that was gonna stir up some dust! Devilled eggs really are better eaten cold, and Ebola patients really are more contagious left untreated; but I can't see that not saying X makes X itself any "better": it makes the situation in which you have the option of saying X better. I think better here works like rather, sooner, liefer. It's just that messy BE that lends the sentence the outward form of a predication. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 6 '15 at 16:55
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    @Araucaria Perhaps we should think of BE better as a periphrastic modal, like BE going to – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 6 '15 at 17:04
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    Sorry I didn't stop after the first sentence of your post; I'm just not the stopping kind. :) – Færd Dec 6 '15 at 18:42

I would interpret the sentence as: Some things are better when they are left unsaid. For me "better" is a normal predicative adjective (in comparative form) followed by a sub clause of time/condition. This sub clause is shortened to "when left unsaid".

  • I +1ed your answer because you treated better as a normal peedicative adjective. I too don't think that grammar rules should be burdened and bent to compensate for the ambiguity or complexity of a singular meaning or a metaphorical usage of a word. On the other hand, if the structure of the sentence is explainable as it is, I think we should make do with what grammar rules we have at hand, without assuming something has been omitted. – Færd Dec 7 '15 at 11:25
  • Elliptical constructions are a vast and important area in English and any language, though not presented in grammars. You can run into a lot of grammar problems if you don't considerer omission of words. We think relatively fast, so we have to shorten a lot of frequently used expressions. – rogermue Dec 7 '15 at 12:38

Things are left (unresolved)

what things? Some

Some things are left

left how? unsaid

Some things are left unsaid

and so, one gets:

Some things are better to be left unsaid, than to be explained

When referring to something specific

It's better left unsaid.

can be used.

  • This doesn't answer the question Peter. The OP's looking for a grammatical analysis. – It's Over Mar 9 '16 at 10:09

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