After my recent discovery that a whole ton of sites online don’t know what a Subject is, I couldn’t resist looking at their idea of what a Direct Object is. Surprise! They get that one wrong too. And for almost exactly the same reasons. Womp womp. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.
So if grammar is something that interests you and if actually want to be right about it, read on to learn what a Direct Object is – and also what it is not.
What is a Direct Object and how do we know?
The Direct Object in a sentence is a syntactic element. We use syntax to find the Direct Object. There are a few syntactic features that we can use to recognize whether something is the Direct Object.
1. The Direct Object immediately follows the verb phrase (aka the main verb of the clause, aka the predicator). When there is also an Indirect Object in the clause, the Direct Object follows the Indirect Object.
2. The Direct Object can occur in a passive sentence and preserves its meaning after passivization.
When we make a passive sentence out of an active one, the Direct Object becomes the Subject and what was the Subject in the active sentence can be left out:
|Superman saved Metropolis once again.||Metropolis was saved once again (by Superman)|
We have to be careful here though because not every Direct Object can be made the Subject in passivization. Instead, a better way of finding the Direct Object is through a wh-cleft paraphrase:
- I wonder why she ran away.
- *Why she ran away is wondered (by me). –> Passivization not possible here.
- What I wonder is why she ran away.
3. Direct Objects are generally questioned by What? Who(m)? Which? and How many/much?
- What did you send? I sent a package.
That’s pretty much it for syntax. We’ll get into the semantics of things but remember: the Direct Object is a matter of syntax.
Perhaps most importantly, the Direct Object represents a new entity in the clause. That means that the Direct Object does not refer to the same thing as the Subject. For example, in the following sentence, both Bruce Wayne and the Batman are referring to the same entity: the person named Bruce Wayne who is also the superhero Batman.
- Bruce Wayne is the Batman.
This means that the Batman is not a Direct Object. It’s called a Subject Complement, but that’s a story for another time.
Semantic features of the Direct Object
Here comes the nasty part of the truth sandwich. You will often hear or read that the Direct Object is the receiver of the action in the sentence. Or the thing being acted upon. But these are semantic features of the Direct Object. These features are another way of describing the semantic role we call “Affected”. Semantic roles are another way of dividing up the elements in a clause or sentence. And although the Direct Object is often in the Affected role in the sentence, this is by no means a requirement. Nor is it a way of identifying the Direct Object. Want to know how we know?
Consider the following sentences. If we recognize the Direct Object with the “receiver” or “acted upon” feature, then only the first sentence would have a Direct Object, when in fact all of them have Direct Objects (underlined).
- He headed the ball into the net.
- The burglars used an acetylene lamp to break open the safe.
- I felt a sudden pain in my arm. (Notice that a sudden pain in my arm is neither receiving the action of felt, nor is it being acted upon)
- He swam the Channel. (The Channel received the action of his swimming. Wat.)
- I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty.
- I must have a look in Martin’s fridge. (Watch as a look is acted upon by my having!)
- Take a hike!
- Oh, are you having a lovely time?
- The stewards all spoke French. (Again, French is neither receiving nor being acted upon. The stewards are not giving or doing anything to the French language by speaking it.)
- We should show understanding for the fear of our neighbors.
And if we wanna get real wild and crazy, we can talk about how English sometimes requires a Direct Object even when the object has no meaning. Just like with the Subject element, English needs something to fill the slot, and so it tucks the word it in there:
- Take it easy on me.
What can be a Direct Object?
Anything can with the right attitude! No, just kidding. Here’s what can realize the Direct Object in a clause:
1. Noun phrases
These are probably the most common types of Direct Objects. Besides the usual noun phrases, this category also includes pronouns and proper nouns. The reason that this category is so common, though, is because the Direct Object introduces a new entity into the discourse. In addition, English prefers to have long (aka “heavy”) noun phrases placed after the main verb, so this is a way of doing that. Examples:
- I made a cake with three layers and icing.
- We parked the car that we rented for the weekend in the wrong place.
2. Anticipatory it
We talked about this one above. But it also happens in sentences like:
- You might think it foolish that all I want is you.
In this case, the word it and the clause that all I want is you are both the Direct Object. You can see that they are both referring to the same thing. But to make the clause grammatical, we need to have an anticipatory it before the Object Complement (foolish) and the Direct Object.
3. Finite clauses
- They fear that someone is watching them.
- No one knows what it’s like.
- I think it’s fair to say that they addressed that issue.
I’m going to say it again – these Direct Objects are not being acted upon! The Direct Object what it’s like is not receiving the action of the verb knows. That doesn’t make any flipping sense! But there it is, a Direct Object all the same.
4. Non-finite clauses
This only works when the non-finite clause can be replaced by a noun phrase and when it can be made the focus of a wh-cleft sentence.
Gentlemen prefer singing with blondes.
Gentlemen prefer to sing with blondes.
Noun phrase replacement: Gentlemen prefer blondes.
Wh-cleft replacement: What gentlemen prefer is to sing/singing with blondes.
5. Prepositional phrases
- The boss prefers before 10am for the meeting.
Some grammars claim that these aren’t that common and they’re probably right. But I would imagine that if we analyzed spoken language a bit more then we might start seeing them in higher numbers. This example looks exactly like something that would be said more than it would be written.
And these are just the Direct Objects in standardized written English. Your own spoken variety may allow for something else to realize the Direct Object. In that case, great! Add it to the list above.
I haven’t brought up the idea of transitivity here. Basically, when a verb takes a Direct Object, then we call that verb “transitive”. The thing is that many verbs can differ in their senses in terms of transitivity. So one sense might be intransitive (no objects), another transitive (one object required), another ditransitive (two objects required), and still another complex transitive (calling for a subject or object complement). In addition, a transitive sense of a verb can easily be used in an intransitive way, especially in spoken English and in less formal written varieties.
I should also mention that there’s a problem with the idea of semantic roles (also called thematic roles). It’s not a theory that is universally accepted by linguists – and in fact it doesn’t seem to be universally applicable cross-linguistically. That means there are problems for the theory within English and there are problems for it when we try to apply it to other languages. So take it with a grain of salt. (Read chapter 10 in Riemer’s Introducing Semantics for more)
Oh and I’ve also just discovered that there a bunch of YouTube videos that also get this wrong. Ugh.
Do I have to start a YouTube channel now?
Update Dec. 4, 2022: Hat tip to Mike Pope, who pointed out that I’m being misleading here. Google doesn’t “know” anything – it just repeats texts that it copies from websites. Mike’s right and there’s lots more behind the idea of whether AI or Google “know” what things “mean”. But yeah, sorry for the clickbait title.
Example sentences drawn from
Downing’s English Grammar (2015, 3rd ed.), Unit 6.1
Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999), §184.108.40.206
Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (), Chapter 4 §1.2, 2, 4