Direct object or prepositional object?

This sentence is in the exercises for one of my grammar classes:

My wife always has a good cry over a wedding.

For the assignment, students need to analyze the syntactic elements of the sentence (subject, predicator, objects, etc.). The answer key has Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Locative complement(over a wedding). But recently a student analyzed the last clause (over a wedding) as a prepositional object. This got me interested. It turns out the answer key is wrong (maybe you already knew that), but the student might be right. Here’s why. 

What the syntactic elements could be

I’m using Downing & Locke’s English Grammar: A University Course (2nd edition, 2006) for the analysis. Results may vary for those of you using a different grammar. There are two options of what the syntactic elements could be.

  1. Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry over a wedding).

This is the simplest explanation, which might mean that it’s the most correct. If over a wedding is seen as a postmodifier in a noun phrase, then the whole noun phrase is a direct object. Semantically, the phrase a good cry and over a wedding do not seem that far apart and they should maybe be considered together. The meaning of the verb have would be “do something” or “perform a particular action” and would be similar to its use in I had a swim to cool down (sense 16 here). And it preserves its meaning in a passive clause (although to me, personally, the passive clause sounds a bit awkward):

A good cry over a wedding is always had by my wife.

I’m going with this analysis. I like how short and simple it is and I like how it keeps have as a monotransitive verb. Here’s what 20 people on Twitter said:

  1. Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Prepositional object(over a wedding).

Downing & Locke (2006: 95) say this of S – P – Od – Oprep clauses:

Although predicted by the verb, the Op in this ditransitive pattern (e.g. It reminds me of you) is further away from the verb and less object-like than when the Prepositional Object is the only object in a clause. The NG (you) can’t be made subject in a passive clause. However, like other Objects, it encodes a participant that can be questioned by who 1, what 2 placed either before the preposition or, more usually, stranded (see 6.3.3). It can also occur in a wh-cleft 3:

1 Who does it remind you of? (Of whom does it remind you?)

2 What are you thanking me for? (For what are you thanking me?)

3 What it reminds me of is Italy.

So for our example sentence, we know that a wedding can’t be made the subject in a passive clause (*A wedding is always had a good cry by my wife over). We therefore need to figure out if a wedding (the noun phrase in the Oprep) can be 1) questioned by what and 2) occur in a wh-cleft:

  • What does my wife always have a good cry over? A wedding
  • What my wife always has a good cry over is a wedding

I would say that both of these cases hold, although a wedding is an unusual participant. But Downing & Locke (2006: 95) go on to say that the Oprep may be an “event.” So we would conclude that the verb have in our sentence is ditransitive and works like this: SOMEONE has SOMETHING over AN EVENT, or X has Y over Z. An example would be something like My kids always have a fight over their video game session. (They don’t actually, I’m just making stuff up for grammar. They’re good kids.)

What the syntactic elements are not

  1. Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Locative complement(over a wedding).

This was the answer on the answer key. But it’s wrong. Downing & Locke (2006: 99) say of these kinds of clauses:

Verbs such as put, place, stand, lead occur with a Locative/Goal Complement:

I put the dish in the microwave.

Stand the lamp near the desk.

In our sentence, over a wedding does not seem to be a locative/goal complement. Although over a wedding implies that the crying occurs at a wedding (that is, at a location), the meaning intended here is that the crying occurs because of a wedding. Basically, the verb have is not a verb of position or movement and so no element expressing location or direction/goal is required. Likewise, the over in this sentence does not express a location in time (as it does in We stayed with them over the weekend).

And in order for our sentence to fit this clause structure, the verb have would have to be a ditransitive verb, which I’m not so sure it is (or at least this meaning of it is not ditransitive). So this analysis is out.

  1. Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Object complement(over a wedding).

For the sake of being complete, let’s also look at this option. Downing & Locke (2006: 64) say “The Object Complement (Co) completes the predicate with an [Adjective phrase or Noun phrase] following a direct object. The Direct Object, but not the Complement, can become subject in a passive clause. The Co is realised by [Adjective phrases], definite and indefinite [Noun phrases] and clauses.”

So the first thing to do would be to check if the Od can be made the subject in a passive clause.

?A good cry is always had by my wife over a wedding.

I am marking this with a “?” because it sounds rather unidiomatic to me, if not completely ungrammatical.

Downing & Locke also say (2006: 68) that

Sometimes a Co realised by a prepositional phrase (The burglars left the house in a mess) is similar in meaning to an adjectival complement [what I call an adverbial] (The burglars left the house untidy). We can distinguish its status as Complement from the superficially similar realisation by an optional Adjunct (in five minutes in The burglars left the house in five minutes) by the intensive relationship linking the [direct object] and its complement. This can be tested by paraphrase with be (The house was in a mess; *The house was in five minutes). The two meanings are dependent on the related meanings of leave: ‘leave something in a state’ and ‘go away from’, respectively. [bolding mine]

If we try to distinguish over a wedding as either a Co or an optional adverbial by using this method, we get:

*My wife is over a wedding.

This is enough to show that over a wedding is not an Object complement. In addition, our sentence is therefore not similar to a S-P-Od-Oprep clause, such as Jim keeps his Jaguar in perfect order because that clause can easily be made into a passive clause:

His Jaguar is in perfect order.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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