English Grammar

Direct Objects, Indirect Objects, and Retained Objects

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Direct objects receive the action of the verb directly; however, not all verbs take direct objects. Verbs that do are called transitive verbs; verbs that do not are called intransitive verbs. Linking verbs, that is, all forms of the verb be as well as the verbs become, remain, seem, and others (more about this later), are intransitive, as are many other verbs, e.g., come, aspire, squirm, etc. Some verbs are transitive in one or several meanings and intransitive in another or others. It is necessary that the student be able to identify direct objects, which are a basic component of language.

To find a direct object, ask whom? or what? immediately after a non-linking verb. Take this sentence: That is a tree. If you ask what? immediately after the verb is, you get the answer tree; however, tree is not a direct object since it follows a linking verb. Now take the sentence They saw a tree. If you ask what? immediately after the verb saw, you get the answer tree, which is a direct object. Letís practice:

- In college she studied economics. Is there a direct object in this sentence? To find out, ask whom? or what? immediately after the verb, which is studied. Of course, it makes no sense to ask whom? here, but it does make sense to ask what? She studied what? Economics. Since economics is the answer to this question, it is a direct object.

- In college she sometimes studied until two in the morning. She sometimes studied whom? makes no sense, and She sometimes studied what? has no answer in this sentence; therefore, the sentence has no direct object. As you now know, not every non-linking verb has a direct object.

- They like Amy but dislike her friend. The question They like whom? points to Amy as the direct object of like, and They dislike whom? gives friend as the direct object of dislike.

- He has been an accountant for nine years. He has been what? does indeed have an answer in the sentence; however, has been is a form of the verb be and cannot have a direct object. The answer provided by this sentence, accountant, is a predicate nominative (more about this later).

- They hiked out into the country and enjoyed the sights. There are two verbs in this sentence: hiked and enjoyed. Neither hiked whom? nor hiked what? has an answer; however, enjoyed what? does. Sights is the direct object of enjoyed.

- We planted flowers and vegetables in our garden. The question We planted what? yields the answer flowers and vegetables, a compound direct object.

- She can read and write French, but she does not speak the language well. She can read and write what? The compound verb read and write has a direct object, French. She does not speak what well? gets us language as the direct object of speak.

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2. An indirect object tells to whom or for whom a direct object is given, said, or shown. In the sentence He showed them the picture, the direct object is picture and the indirect object is them (the people to whom the picture was shown). An indirect object is not preceded by a preposition. Although He showed them the picture means the same thing as He showed the picture to them, the latter sentence expresses the recipient of the giving as the object of a preposition, not as an indirect object. Here are some more sentences with indirect objects:

- Fred gave his sister a present. (Present is a direct object. The indirect object is sister.)

- Will you lend me a dollar? (Dollar is a direct object. The indirect object is me.)

- She is telling her students a story. (Story is a direct object. The indirect object is students.)

Remember: Not every sentence that has a direct object has an indirect object as well. Indirect objects are found only in sentences that have verbs of giving, telling, or showing: verbs like offer, hand, teach, lend, promise, bring, and get. Even verbs like sing and find can take indirect objects if they imply a kind of giving or offering, as in Will you sing us a song? and Find me a pretty flower! The indirect objects are us and me. Do doesnít seem to be a verb of giving, but it is in a sentence like Please do me a favor.

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3. In general, one can make a sentence in the active voice passive only if it has a direct object; in fact, it is the direct object of the active sentence that becomes the subject of an equivalent sentence in the passive voice. Surprisingly, the English language allows also the indirect object to be used as the subject of a passive sentence. Here is an example: (active) For graduation her parents will give her a computer. (passive equivalent) For graduation she will be given a computer by her parents. Notice that her, the indirect object in the active sentence, has become the subject she of the passive sentence. The question is this: What is the function of computer in the passive sentence? The direct object of the active sentence is retained in the passive equivalent and is called a retained object.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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