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Subjects and objects in English - article

Type: Article

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on the sometimes complex issue of teaching subjects and objects in English.

Subjects and objects

There are some verbs in English which describe an action or event involving only one person or thing. This person or thing is referred to as the subject, e.g.

Jamie arrived early.
A dreadful thing happened yesterday.

Many English verbs, however, involve a second person or thing which is affected or produced by the action described by the verb. This second person or thing is referred to as the direct object, e.g.

She made a vegetable curry.
Jamie married Kate's sister.
He noticed me.

Less typical examples of direct objects are those involving more abstract concepts which are not necessarily affected or produced by the action described by the verb, but relate to it in some other way, e.g.

She spoke German fluently.
I think she was telling the truth.
Did you have a lovely time?

There are some verbs in English which, as well as involving a subject and direct object, can also allow the speaker to mention a third participant, generally someone who benefits from the action described by the verb or receives something as a result of it. This person is referred to as the indirect object, eg.

Jamie lent her sixty pounds.
Dad has promised Tom a new bike.
I'll give Alex one of my sandwiches.
Will you show me what you are drawing?
Tell us the truth.

Object order

If a sentence or clause has more than one object, i.e. both a direct and an indirect object, then the general rule is that the indirect object (usually the person who benefits from the action denoted by the verb) is placed before the direct object, immediately after the verb. This is illustrated in the table of examples below:

subject
verb
indirect object
direct object
Jamielenthersixty pounds
Iwill giveAlexone of my sandwiches
 Tellusthe truth

 

 

 

 

 

We can think of the indirect object as a central element of a sentence, always being placed closest to the verb, so that an example such as the one below (with the indirect object underlined):

* Bob lent five dollars Jim.

is never possible, and should read:

Bob lent Jim five dollars.

There are some verbs which can occur either with a direct object alone, or with both a direct object and an indirect object. When the indirect object is introduced, the position of the direct object is affected, it no longer comes immediately after the verb. Compare the sentences below, where the direct object is underlined:

I bought a lovely bunch of flowers.
I bought Mum and Dad a lovely bunch of flowers.

Indirect objects and prepositional phrases

Instead of placing the indirect object before the direct object as in, e.g.

Bob lent Jim five dollars.

it is possible to put the indirect object in a prepositional phrase which comes after the direct object, e.g.

Bob lent five dollars to Jim.

Since indirect objects usually denote 'recipients' or 'beneficiaries' of the action of the verb, they are often paraphrased in prepositional phrases introduced by the prepositions to and for, e.g.

I poured Jack a drink.
I poured a drink for Jack.

There is no fundamental difference in meaning between the use of a prepositional phrase or an indirect object alone, so that the following sentences are the same in meaning:

We'll send Shirley a postcard.
We'll send a postcard to Shirley.

However, use of a prepositional phrase to introduce an indirect object is more common in certain circumstances, as follows:

A prepositional phrase is used when you want to give more focus to the indirect object by placing it at the end of a sentence. Compare, for example:

Tom hasn't had any of those chocolates. I gave Sam the last one.
Tom hasn't had any of those chocolates. I gave the last one to Sam.

In the first example, the emphasis is on 'the last one' (the direct object), whereas in the second example, the emphasis is on the recipient 'Sam' (the indirect object).

A prepositional phrase is also used when the indirect object is significantly longer than the direct object, so that, 

I offered a mint to the man who was standing beside me at the bus stop.

is preferable to:

I offered the man who was standing beside me at the bus stop a mint.

Thirdly, a prepositional phrase is more common when the direct object is a pronoun, such as it or them, e.g.

I read the book and then lent it to Helen.

is more usual than:

I read the book and then lent Helen it.

This is because the pronoun usually refers to something which has already been mentioned (the book), and that new information, in this case the recipient of the book (the indirect object) is more likely to come at the end of the sentence.

However, in informal English, a prepositional phrase is not always used when both direct and indirect objects are pronouns. So, for example, we can say:

She gave me it yesterday.

And in informal spoken English, examples such as:

She gave it me yesterday.

are also quite common, where, exceptionally, the direct object it has been placed before the indirect object me.

Special cases

There are some core verbs in English where the indirect object usually comes immediately after the verb, before the direct object, rather than being placed at the end of a sentence in a prepositional phrase. Some examples are the verb ask, e.g.

I need to ask John a question. (rather than I need to ask a question to John.)

and the verb promise, e.g.

Dad promised me a new bike. (rather than Dad promised a new bike to me.)

By contrast, when using the verb say, the indirect object must be introduced by a prepositional phrase with to. For example, sentences such as:

*Helen said the children goodbye.
*He said me hello.

are ungrammatical, the indirect objects children and me should be put into prepositional phrases, e.g.

Helen said goodbye to the children.
He said hello to me.

The verb explain also behaves in this way. We do not say, for example:

*Can you explain me the problem?

but rather:

Can you explain the problem to me?

The verb tell, however, can be used with an indirect object directly following the verb, for example:

Matthew told the boys an exciting story.

but is also sometimes directly followed by a direct object with the indirect object in a prepositional phrase, depending on what the speaker prefers to emphasize. Compare, for example:

She told the police the whole story.
She told the whole story to the police.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Subjects are not "only one thing" and this explanation will confuse readers. Wikipedia lists the forms a subject may take: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject_(grammar)

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