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    Lies Your Grammar Teacher Told You: Indirect Objects

    Lies Your Grammar Teacher Told You: Indirect Objects

    I recently tweeted my post entitled Using Nouns and Noun Phrases as Indirect Objects. To my tweet, I received a comment that argued that, although the cat in I gave the cat a bath is indeed a recipient, the cat is not an indirect object but rather a direct object. Analyzing the cat as a direct object in I gave the cat a bath is unequivocally wrong. Additionally, analyzing the prepositional phrase in the semantically equivalent I gave a bath to the cat as an indirect object is equally erroneous. Unfortunately, many grammars and grammar teachers continue to propagate lies about the indirect object.

    Indirect Objects Versus Adjunct Adverbials

    An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a ditransitive verb and indicates to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed. Ditransitive verbs take two objects: (1) a direct object and an indirect object or (2) a direct object and an object complement. A sentence with an indirect object must also have a direct object. However, not all sentences with direct objects also have indirect objects. For example, the following italicized forms function as indirect objects:

    • I gave the cat a bath.
    • The teacher assigned Linus extra homework.
    • Andrew Carnegie built many cities libraries.
    • My son threw me the ball.
    • You should give what your parents said some thought.

    First, in a construction containing a ditransitive verb in English, the indirect object follows the verb and precedes the direct object. The predicate of I gave the cat a bath contains two noun phrases: the cat and a bath. Syntactically, the first noun phrase the cat is the indirect object. (Note that, in constructions containing the other type of ditransitive verb (attributive ditransitive verbs), the direct object follows the verb and precedes the object complement.) Switching the word order of the cat and a bath changes the grammatical functions of the two noun phrases and the meaning of the sentence. Although grammatically possible (if not semantically odd), I gave a bath the cat does not confer the same meaning as I gave the cat a bath.

    I Gave the Cat a Bath Sentence Diagram

    Second, a word, phrase or clause functioning as an indirect object can move into a prepositional phrase headed by the preposition to or for that functions as an adjunct adverbial. An indirect object answers to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed. Thus, an indirect object can move into a prepositional phrase that literally answers the question “To or for whom or what is the action of the verb performed?” For example, the follow sentences demonstrate the movement of the indirect objects from the above examples into prepositional phrases:

    • I gave a bath to the cat.
    • The teacher assigned extra homework to Linus.
    • Andrew Carnegie built libraries for many cities.
    • My son threw the ball to me.
    • You should give some thought to what your parents said.

    However, once an indirect object moves into a to– or for-prepositional phrase, the form ceases to function as an indirect object and becomes a prepositional complement. The entire prepositional phrase then functions as an adjunct adverbial. Adjunct adverbials are words, phrases, and clauses that modify an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. Unlike indirect objects, adjunct adverbials are not constituents of the predicate. Adjunct adverbials are also not constituents of the subject but are instead constituents of the entire sentence. An adjunct adverbial can be omitted without changing the grammaticality of the rest of the sentence (although semantic meaning is lost by omitting the to– or for-prepositional phrase). Most importantly, to– or for-prepositional phrase formed by moving an indirect object are not indirect objects. Semantically, the two forms provide the same information (to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed). Grammatically, the cat and to the cat differ in form and function.

    I Gave a Bath to the Cat Sentence Diagram

    Indirect Objects and Passive Constructions

    Additionally, indirect objects can move into subject positions in passive constructions. Direct objects can also move into subject positions. Adjunct adverbials cannot. For example, the follow sentences demonstrate the movement of the direct and indirect objects from the above examples into subject positions:

    • The cat was given a bath by me.
    • A bath was given to the cat by me.
    • Linus was assigned extra homework by the teacher.
    • Extra homework was assigned to Linus by the teacher.
    • Many cities were built libraries by Andrew Carnegie.
    • Libraries were built for many cities by Andrew Carnegie.
    • I was thrown the ball by my son.
    • The ball was thrown to me by my son.
    • What your parents said should be given some thought by you.
    • Some thought should be given to what your parents said by you.

    When an indirect object moves of an active ditransitive construction moves into the subject position of the equivalent passive construction, the sentence retains the direct object, but the active subject moves into a by-prepositional phrase that functions as an adjunct adverbial. For example, the indirect object the cat in the active I gave the cat a bath moves into the subject position and the subject I moves into a by-prepositional phrase, resulting in the passive The cat was given a bath by me with a bath as the direct object. Just as with other adjunct adverbials, the by-prepositional phrase in a passive construction can be omitted without changing the grammaticality of the sentence. Both The cat was given a bath by me and The cat was given a bath are grammatically possible, although the second omits the agent of the verb.

    The Cat Was Given a Bath by Me Sentence Diagram

    Conversely, when a direct object of an active ditransitive construction moves into the subject position of the equivalent passive construction, the original indirect object must move into a to– or for-prepositional phrase because transitive verbs followed by only an indirect object are grammatically impossible in English. For example, the direct object a bath in the active I gave the cat a bath moves into the subject position, resulting in the passive A bath was given to the cat by me but not *A bath was given the cat by me. The subject I moves into a by-prepositional phrase, and the indirect object the cat must move into a to-prepositional phrase because a sentence cannot have an indirect object but not a direct object in English.

    • I gave the cat a bath.
    • I gave a bath to the cat.
    • The cat was given a bath by me.
    • A bath was given to the cat by me.
    • *A bath was given the cat by me.
    • *To the cat was given a bath by me.

    Likewise, adjunct adverbials cannot move into subject positions. The indirect object the cat in the active ditransitive I gave the cat a bath can move into the subject position in the passive equivalent. However, if the indirect object moves into a to-prepositional phrase functioning as an adjunct adverbial, the prepositional phrase cannot move into the subject position in the passive construction. *To the cat was given a bath by me is grammatically impossible in English.

    A Bath Was Given to the Cat by Me Sentence Diagram

    Additionally, the form of the adjunct adverbial is irrelevant. Noun phrases can function as adjunct adverbials as in the active ditransitive I gave the cat a bath yesterday morning. The noun phrase yesterday morning functions as an adjunct adverbial to provide additional information about time. However, the nominal adjunct adverbial still cannot move into the subject position in the passive equivalent: *Yesterday morning was given the cat a bath by me is grammatically (and semantically) impossible in English.

    Verb Transitivity and Adjunct Adverbials

    The transitivity of a verb also does not affect the possibility of an adjunct adverbial. Adjunct adverbials provide additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession for an entire clause. For example, the following sentences contain intransitive, monotransitive, and ditransitive verbs and may or may not include adjunct adverbials:

    • I slept. (intransitive)
    • I slept today.
    • *I slept to the students.
    • *I slept to Mary.
    • I gave a speech. (monotransitive)
    • I gave a speech today.
    • I gave a speech to the students.
    • I gave a speech to Mary.
    • I gave an apple. (monotransitive)
    • I gave an apple to the students.
    • I gave an apple to Mary.
    • I gave an apple to the students today.
    • I gave an apple to Mary today.
    • I gave Mary an apple. (ditransitive)
    • I gave the students an apple today.
    • I gave Mary an apple today.

    The noun today and the prepositional phrases to the students and to Mary function as adjunct adverbials. Adjunct adverbials can appear with all three types of verbs. However, not all forms of adjunct adverbials can appear with all types of verbs. The noun today provides information about time and can appear with intransitive, monotransitive, and ditransitive verbs. The prepositional phrases to the students and to Mary provide more information about how the action of the verb gave happened. Neither form can appear with the intransitive verb sleep, but other types of adjunct adverbials such as time can. All three types of verbs can additionally appear with the other two types of adverbials: disjunct and conjunct. For example:

    • In my opinion, word study rocks. (intransitive, disjunct)
    • According to the new study, consuming excess sugar causes health problems. (monotransitive, disjunct)
    • With all due respect, you must give your baby a bath. (ditransitive, disjunct)
    • However, all dodos died. (intransitive, conjunct)
    • He then diced the carrots. (monotransitive, conjunct)
    • She bought me a present too. (ditransitive, conjunct)

    Indirect Objects Across Languages

    Finally, languages vary in the expression of indirect objects. In English, noun phrases including pronouns most commonly function as indirect objects. However, both verb phrases in the form of present participles and noun clauses function as indirect objects with some frequency. Prepositional phrases can also perform the function of indirect object, although rarely and typically only within non-standard spoken Englishes. For example:

    • My husband bought me flowers. (pronoun)
    • Companies mail consumers bills. (noun)
    • The student showed his teacher his project. (noun phrase)
    • My parents gave that I want to go to the party some thought. (noun clause)
    • The child gave reading the book some consideration. (verb phrase)
    • My mom gave under the bed a good scrubbing. (prepositional phrase)

    All five forms of indirect object can move into a subject position in an equivalent passive construction:

    • I was bought flowers by my husband.
    • Consumers are mailed bills by companies.
    • His teacher was shown his project by the student.
    • That I want to go to the party was given some thought by my parents.
    • Reading the book was given some consideration by the child.
    • Under the bed was given a good scrubbing by my mom.

    Unlike with the adjunct adverbial to the cat in I gave a bath to the cat, the indirect object under the bed can move into the subject position of a passive construction, maintaining the grammaticality of the utterance.

    While English allows nouns and noun phrases to function as indirect objects, not all languages do. Spanish, for example, has ditransitive verbs, but the form of the indirect object differs significantly from English. The following Spanish sentences, English translations, literal translations demonstrate the differences between indirect objects in the two languages:

    • Juan me compra un regalo. “Juan buys me a gift.” (Juan me buys a gift.)
    • Ella no le escribe una carta. “She does not write you a letter.” (She not you writes a letter.)
    • Le di un pez al gato. “I gave the cat a fish.” (It I gave a fish to the cat.)
    • María le trajo la comida a mi hermano. “Maria brought my sister food. (Maria him brought the food to my brother.)
    • Sarah le da el pan al pato. “Sarah gives the duck bread.” (Sarah it gives the bread to the duck.)

    In English, an indirect object follows the verb and precedes the direct object. In Spanish, an indirect pronoun precedes the verb. The direct object follows the verb. An adjunct adverbial in the form of an a-prepositional phrase (to-prepositional phrase) can follow the direct object. Not only does the word order differ between English and Spanish, but Spanish does not allow forms other than pronouns to function as indirect objects. Instead, the antecedent of the indirect object pronoun follows the direct object in a prepositional phrase. For example, in María le trajo la comida a mi hermano, the pronoun le functions as the indirect object of the verb trajo and the noun phrase la comida functions as the direct object. The antecedent of the pronoun le is the noun phrase mi hermano. In English, both Maria brought my brother food and Maria brought food to my brother are grammatically possible. In Spanish, only pronouns can function as indirect objects. The pronominal antecedent mi hermano can occur only in an a-prepositional phrase that follows the direct object and functions as an adjunct adverbial.

    Conclusion

    An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a ditransitive verb and precedes a direct object and indicates to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed. Four grammatical forms (noun phrases including nouns and pronouns, noun clauses, verb phrases, prepositional phrases) can function as indirect objects in English, although nominal forms most commonly perform the function. Indirect objects can move into the subject position in passive constructions. Indirect objects can also move into to-prepositional phrases that function as adjunct adverbials. However, adjunct adverbials are not indirect objects despite providing the same semantic information. The grammar of indirect objects also differs across languages, with Spanish allowing only pronouns as indirect objects but English allowing multiple forms.

    References

    Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
    Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
    Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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